Groundbreaking UNO Research Moves to Next Phase with Testing of Reconnaissance Robotic Eel

Groundbreaking research at the University of New Orleans moves to a new phase this month as Brandon Taravella tests his reconnaissance robotic eel in the water.

Taravella received his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the UNO School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, where he is now an assistant professor and graduate program coordinator. He received a 3-year $937,000 award last year from the Office of Naval Research to design and build a new type of robotic “eel” that is capable of operating in shallow water environments where Navy personnel could be at risk.

In May, Taravella's research team received a follow-up grant worth approximately $280,000 from the Department of Defense to buy state-of-the-art defense research equipment to help support the project.  Now that basic design of the eel is complete, Taravella is testing his work in the engineering school's 125-foot tow tank, a long narrow pool where naval and marine engineering students test the vessels they build and the only such tow tank in the Gulf South region.

By placing the robotic eel in water, Taravella and his team are now testing various waterproof skins, along with the eel's aquatic motion. As the project advances, researchers will attempt to confirm an aquatic swimming motion theory originally completed by William Vorus, professor emeritus of the UNO School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. Vorus’ theory involves a swimming motion that has very low drag and high efficiency.  If successful, Taravella and his team will have developed a reconnaissance tool that can move speedily through enemy waters without leaving a wake -- and overturned a longstanding theory of motion and marine engineering.

Recent changes in naval warfare have demanded more intelligence, surveillance and reconnissance operations in shallow water areas such as rivers and coastline. Naval researchers need tools that help them to conduct monitoring and data collection in harsh or dangerous conditions. The Navy also has a strong interest in developing autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can carry sensors into dangerous environments without being detected. Taravella's work will ultimately investigate the science and engineering aspects of a new type of AUV that will be able to travel long distances on low power.

Industry could also ultimately benefit from the technological advances uncovered by the team, Taravella said. Built to withstand pressure, the robotic eel could be sent into other waters where humans should not venture, such as deep waters surrounding oil rigs off coastal Louisiana.

Local ABC affiliate, WGNO-TV, aired an excellent three-minute segment this week on the latest development in Taravella's research.

"It’s rare when a local news outlet devotes nearly three minutes to a research-oriented story," said UNO Vice President of Research and Economic Development Scott L. Whittenburg. "It’s a great showcase of the kind of cutting-edge research that we are doing here at UNO."

For more on Taravella and his robotic eel, read the fall issue of the UNO Magazine, due out in late September.