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Robots in a dangerous world

Rothermere fellow hopes technology can make a safer ocean



By Jackey Locke

As a native Newfoundlander, Michael Furlong knows all about the province’s harsh marine environment. The challenges that many seafarers face on a daily basis on the ocean is a reality not only for them, but for family and friends on land, too.

As this year’s recipient of the Rothermere Fellowship, Mr. Furlong is helping to make a difference – by making robots.

“I am interested in putting robots out to work in real-world environments, particularly harsh environments and if there is one thing we are not lacking in Newfoundland and Labrador is a harsh environment,” he said. “Search and rescue is a big problem we have that automated vehicles could help solve. By searching the ocean and reporting back, we could reduce the number of people on the ocean in bad weather and multiply the number of eyes searching, hopefully reducing loss of life in naval accidents.

“The same technology for searching and exploration could be used to monitor environmental accidents like oil spills or to track populations of various marine animals for the purposes of more effective fishing, reducing bycatch, or more ecologically-friendly fishing, knowing species populations in order to set fishing quotas,” he added.

The Rothermere Fellowship was established by Lord Rothermere, Memorial’s first chancellor, and is given to an exceptional scholar whose research will contribute or be of value to Newfoundland and Labrador. It includes university fees, a personal maintenance stipend, and other expenses such as return air travel to the United Kingdom.

To be eligible, candidates must have completed a bachelor’s degree at Memorial and have completed, or be about to complete, a master’s degree either at Memorial or at another North American university.

Mr. Furlong was extremely happy when he heard he had won the Fellowship.

“It’s a great honour to be selected from the candidates for the fellowship. Winning this award is also an opportunity to experience British-style education, which is different from the Canadian and American systems,” he said.

An electrical and computer engineering graduate from Memorial’s Faculty of Engineering, Mr. Furlong is currently in-between finishing his master’s in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and starting his PhD, and will spend his summer working on connecting models of human behaviour into some search and rescue robots at the Robotics Institute at CMU. However, he is interested in returning home, and to Memorial, at some point.

“I am very interested in applying my research efforts to real-world problems”, he said. “Research projects (and not only ones from the Engineering Faculty) can be easily spun off by the university to profit not only the university but also the province as a whole. I would be very much interested in going back to Memorial not only to further my research but also to partake in the university as an engine of innovation and economic growth for the province.”

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