Center for Ocean Engineering: Anchors Aweigh
Originally established in 1893 as the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (NA&ME), and rechristened the Department of Ocean Engineering in 1970, the program officially merged with Mechanical Engineering on January 1, 2005. Thus also emerged the Center for Ocean Engineering (COE).
The COE is more than just a new name for a hoary program. According to Professor Michael Triantafyllou, director of the COE, "The COE represents a new, more focused effort to preserve and expand the research and educational efforts in Ocean Engineering. At the same time, it builds on the program's origins."
When the original NA&ME department was created, Boston was a major sailing center and the US Navy was in critical need of technical expertise. "We were obviously well-positioned to capitalize on this situation," says Triantafyllou, "and a collaboration was initiated between MIT and the Navy that exists to the present day. In fact, half of all technical admirals in the US Navy today are graduates of MIT's ocean engineering program."
Another key partner of COE is the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the world's largest private institution dedicated to research and higher education at the frontiers of ocean science. MIT and WHOI have been offering a joint degree program in both oceanography and oceanographic engineering for nearly 40 years. Students typically spend at least the first two years at MIT, with summers at WHOI.
Seven seas, four foci
As currently structured, the ocean engineering program at MIT focuses on four areas: acoustics, hydrodynamics, structures and structural dynamics, and design and marine robotics.
Acoustics - Electromagnetic waves can't travel far underwater, so vision and navigation must be accomplished acoustically, the same way that some marine mammals communicate and locate prey. MIT's ocean acoustics group is one of the leading centers of sonar research in the world, and the sonar systems developed for the US Navy are capable of extremely complex signal processing.
Hydrodynamics - Water is an unusual medium, a random, turbulent environment with different properties at the surface and below, affecting how ships, humans, and animals, as well as the atmosphere interact with it. Understanding hydrodynamic phenomena, therefore, is critical in ensuring seaworthy ship design. "Recently," says Triantafyllou, "we have expanded our study to include 'internal waves,' which are waves supported on the pycnocline (a layer of the ocean where the water density changes rapidly with depth). These waves can put enormous forces on deep offshore structures."
Structures and Structural Dynamics - Ocean structures and vessels are complex systems; therefore, designing and fabricating more efficient and higher-performing structures (such as offshore platforms, supertankers, trans-oceanic cables, and deep submersibles) is a very challenging engineering task. Students study the structural mechanics of vessels, sources of stress, the behavior of a range of materials, and crashworthiness.
Design and Marine Robotics - Continuing ocean exploration requires robots that can go where humans cannot, such as waters that are very deep, shallow, or stormy. COE's marine robotic groups have developed some of the most advanced autonomous vehicles and smart sensors in use today. In addition, COE's biomimetic robotics group studies how different marine animals swim in order to develop robots that can propel themselves through the water like fish, emulating their outstanding performance. A current robotic project explores the swimming of sea turtles in order to develop stable platforms with outstanding maneuvering ability and large sensor payload.
Full steam ahead - With more than a century of innovation and knowledge behind it, the COE is looking ahead to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. According to Triantafyllou, "Though humans have sailed for thousands of years, we know less today about the ocean depths than we do about outer space. There is still much to learn on the effect of global warming and climate change in the oceans - the ocean, after all, is the major depository of carbon dioxide. The more we know about the ocean the better we will be able to predict and prevent tsunamis, preserve undersea life, and better utilize the more than 70% of the earth's surface covered by water."