News Release

Robotics for Exploration at the Contextual Robotics Forum on Oct. 28

San Diego, Calif., Oct. 11, 2016 – Underwater camera traps used to photograph the rare vaquita porpoise in Mexico and drones used to conduct radio collar tracking missions in the Cayman Islands are just two of the technologies that will be presented at the technology showcase for the UC San Diego Contextual Robotics Forum on Oct. 28, 2016.

At the forum itself, world robotics leaders will convene to discuss the future of robotics as it pertains to Shared Autonomy. At the forum’s technology showcase, UC San Diego researchers from across all engineering disciplines, computer and data sciences, cognitive and neurosciences and the social sciences will demonstrate technologies that are critical for tomorrow’s advanced robotics systems. You can register at

One of technology-showcase presenters is Engineers for Exploration, a group of faculty, researchers and students at UC San Diego that is developing and using technology to drive the future of exploration. Read about two of their projects below.

Vaquita Monitoring

The small vaquita porpoise is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. As of November 2015, scientists estimate that fewer than 60 individuals remain in the northern part of the Gulf of California in Mexico, with the population declining rapidly due to incidental mortality in the gillnets used by fishermen. Current estimates say that the species will become extinct by 2018 unless vaquita mortality is completely eliminated (source).

“No one has been able to photograph a vaquita porpoise underwater,” said Antonella Wilby, a second year UC San Diego computer science Ph.D. student who is part of professor Ryan Kastner’s lab. “Some of the locals even believe that the vaquita is a mythical creature.”

Efforts to raise public awareness have been hindered by the lack of documentation of the vaquita in their natural habitat, which is essential for increasing public knowledge of the vaquita’s plight, she added. She and colleagues built an underwater camera trap specifically designed to photograph the vaquita in its natural habitat.

Wilby and collaborators from the Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambio Climático (INECC) in Mexico, the Southwest Fisheries Science Center — NOAA,  and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research have developed a specialized underwater camera system called SphereCam that triggers off of the vaquita’s echolocation clicks.

Vaquita make echolocation clicks for navigation and foraging, which are in the range of 122 to 150 kHz, said Wilby. These vocalizations are picked up by an ultrasonic hydrophone which triggers the camera trap to record video if the vaquita is close by.

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The SphereCam is fully extensible and reprogrammable, allowing study of any species with a signature vocalization.

Cameras take an enormous amount of energy to run, especially the six GoPro cameras mounted inside the Spherecam. Everything, including a battery, has to be small enough to fit inside a commercially available waterproof enclosure. 

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SphereCam Computer

“After some deliberation, we chose to use the Intel Edison compute module and microphones to record echolocation,” said Wilby.

The SphereCam was deployed in early September.

Radio Collar Tracking

UC San Diego Engineers for Exploration is also part of a team that’s developed a drone to conduct radio collar tracking missions.

While tracking wildlife radio collars is one of the most effective ways of monitoring animal movement patters, the approach is limited by the speed at which researchers can traverse the terrain.

The Radio Collar Tracker project addresses this issue.

The system flies a search grid over a candidate area while recording a large swath of radio spectrum using a software defined radio, said Nathan Hui, a fifth year electrical engineering major at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Once the drone returns from the flight, the team uses digital signal processing to extract the frequencies that the radio collars are transmitting on, and a statistical model to determine where the collars they heard are. This data is then saved to a GIS (Geographical Information System) file, which ecologists and biologists can then use in their research.

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2015 Radio Collar Tracker during Desert Flight Testing

In a 2015 collaboration with the San Diego Zoo, the team took the Radio Collar Tracker to the Dominican Republic to study the rhinoceros iguana (Cyclura cornuta) and the Ricord’s iguana (Cyclura ricordi).  During the summer of 2016, the students took the Radio Collar Tracker to Little Cayman to study the Sister Isle’s Rock Iguana (Cyclura nubila caymanensis).

“We’re trying to apply robotics to fundamental science research and enable the researchers to do things they couldn’t before,” said Hui.

Contextual Robotics Forum on Oct. 28

This idea of enabling humans to do more is central to the 2016 Contextual Robotics Forum at UC San Diego on Oct. 28, where world robotics leaders will convene to discuss Shared Autonomy.

“We chose the theme because we are getting to the era of deploying robots in all places – but in almost every case there needs to be a human interacting with them,” said Henrik Christensen, the new director of the Contextual Robotics Institute at UC San Diego. “We invited global and local thought leaders to discuss the question, ‘How do we build robots that empower people to do things that they couldn’t before?’”

The university hired Christensen in July 2016 to lead the Institute and serve as a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Christensen is among the experts giving a presentation at the forum. He will discuss big trends in robotics – where the field is going and how it plays into the broader ecosystem of intelligent homes, workspaces and appliances.

The forum will showcase some of the innovative research being done at the UC San Diego Contextual Robotics Institute, including the SphereCam and Radio Collar Tracker. Contextual robotics at UC San Diego aims to develop safe, useful and human-friendly robotics systems that are deeply integrated with how humans live.

Forum Details

DATE: October 28, 2016

TIME: 8:00 A.M. - 5:00 P.M.

LOCATION: Atkinson Hall, UC San Diego

COST: $100


About Contextual Robotics at UC San Diego

UC San Diego researchers from across all engineering disciplines, computer and data sciences, cognitive and neurosciences and the social sciences are advancing technologies critical for tomorrow’s robotic systems that will see and think before acting. This area of “contextual robotics” offers great opportunities due to the convergence of a collection of rapidly advancing fields including cognitive modeling, computer vision, machine learning, artificial intelligence, controls, emotion detection, high-performance computing, energy-efficient computing and hardware, embedded systems, soft robotics and much more.

Media Contacts

Brittanie Collinsworth
UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation