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Dr. Ryan N. Smith: Robot Brain Surgeon

When looking back on his educational and career path, Associate Professor of Physics & Engineering and 2017-18 Fort Lewis College Featured Scholar Dr. Ryan N. Smith points to a small toy he received when he was a child as a catalyst for what he would become.

“On my fifth birthday, I got a radio-controlled submarine and I was very excited,” he says. “My birthday's in June so I ran out, threw it in the water, turned the rudders all the way down, and drove full throttle straight ahead. I never saw the submarine again.

“Every summer I went out to dive or snorkel to see if I could find the darn thing. It disappeared, and I think that sparked a curiosity in what was going on underwater and what was happening; and where the heck did my submarine go?”

From that little toy Dr. Smith moved on to bigger, cooler and much more expensive submersibles. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Engineering Physics from Miami University, and a master’s in Mathematics and a doctorate in Ocean and Resources Engineering from the University of Hawai`i at Manoa, he started working on large-scale ocean deployments of multiple robots during his post-doctoral work at the University of Southern California. From there, it was on to the Queensland University of Technology to develop a marine robotics program and work on mapping the Great Barrier Reef. Now, as an associate professor of Physics & Engineering at Fort Lewis College, the question he is always asked is: What does a “marine guy” working on underwater robotics do at Fort Lewis College in landlocked Colorado?

“Basically, what it comes down to is water is important to everybody, and we have a lot of reservoirs here. We have a lot of access to water and it's a precious resource that needs conservation, monitoring and management. When you look at it that way, there's a plethora of water here to deploy in, to survey, to research, to analyze and help the local community. Arguably, I get more wet here than when I lived near the Pacific Ocean.”

Incidents like the Gold King Mine Spill in 2015 heightened the public’s concern regarding water quality across the Southwest. Dr. Smith’s research aims to give people a clearer picture of how what we do affects the quality of our water in our lakes and rivers. One of Dr. Smith’s local projects uses robotic vehicles and buoys to monitor water quality in Rogers Reservoir; the source of Durango’s drinking water. He also deploys robots in Lake Nighthorse to examine the impacts of continual pumping on the future of the lake.

Though it’s the robots that most people see, Dr. Smith’s interest is in the robot’s brain. How do we get robots to do what we want them to do without requiring a person to be there operating them?

“We don't build robots,” he explains. “We build the autonomy that goes in the robots and so we're kind of like brain surgeons, really. We put in the computer code. We put in the algorithms that enable the robots to make their own decisions.”

“There are a lot of questions I'm still trying to answer, but I think the thing that gets me excited is pushing the boundaries. I tend to take big risks, and put my robots in extreme scenarios. I like to get the robots to really do what they're supposed to do, not baby them, not hold onto them or sit them in the lab and watch them sit on the shelf.”

That mantra of taking risks to answer unknowns is being put to the test for another project of Dr. Smith’s: creating three-dimensional reconstructions of abandoned mine corridors. Old mine shafts are dangerous and toxic environments where it would be extremely difficult—if not impossible—for humans to explore. Enter Dr. Smith, his students, and their autonomous (thinking) robots.

“I think the ocean is probably the safest place in the world compared to some of the mines that I have seen in the last few months,” Dr. Smith says, “but my seniors right now have taken on the project of designing a novel robot to go in and examine a few of the mines up in Silverton to help mitigate, manage, and inform on the status of those mines.”

“I don't know what we're going to come up with for the system to look at the mines. It has to be very agile; it has to be versatile; it has to be small; and it has to be able to basically drive on land, float on water, fly through the air, and go through tight spaces and a whole bunch of other constraints. I have seen nothing like this in the world of robotics before.”

The opportunity for students to get hands-on experience alongside professors like Dr. Smith is something special. It’s one ingredient of Fort Lewis College’s recipe for successful undergraduate research.

“Around Fort Lewis College what I see is the passion is still there,” Dr. Smith says. “The zest for answering the question(s) is still there and that's what drives the students, because it's integrated in the classroom. It's integrated in personal discussions on the side and you get to go out and really play and experience that kind of high-level research from some amazing people here. It is an opportunity that you just don't get anywhere else.”

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