Profile of Volkan Isler, McKnight Land-Grant Professor

If you've been out to metro Lake Phalen recently, maybe you saw a mini-pontoon jetting around, sporting an orange cone, antenna, and University of Minnesota flag. If you thought it was a toy, you were wrong. It was a robot on an important mission, aiding research to save Minnesota lakes.

Fisheries and wildlife researchers have been on the trail of invasive carp for several years. The carp are polluting the waters with harmful nutrients while feeding on lake bottoms. Now, robots are helping the researchers. Floating robots are outfitted with sensors to patrol the waters where carp--tagged with radio emitters--are swimming and feeding below. Before the robots arrived, the fish signals had to be monitored by researchers in people-sized boats, taking more time and making more waves.

The carp cops were built and mobilized in the lab of Volkan Isler, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering in the College of Science and Engineering, working in collaboration with researchers in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology. Because of Isler's innovative work in environmental robotics, he is one of 10 recipients of the University's McKnight Land-Grant Professorship for 2010-12.

Robots have been helping humans with automation in many tasks, like building cars, for decades. Today they are beginning to help solve much bigger problems, such as climate change.

"An important part of solving environmental problems is collecting data over large areas and for long periods of time," says Isler. "Maybe you need to collect humidity data for an area visited by a certain species over a certain period of time. Robots can do that."

Isler's research focuses on robotic sensor networks (RSNs)--many small robotic devices, carrying sensors, used in groups over large areas to collect measurements. RSNs can be deployed to quickly analyze a disaster site, save lives by allowing emergency response teams to find victims faster and investigate disaster sites without risking their lives. Isler is especially interested in developing the use of RSNs for environmental and habitat monitoring to advance understanding of climate change and other phenomena. The ultimate goal of his research is to build a robotic system that will allow field scientists to query nature, just as people query a database or search engine.

Robotics began as a subfield of artificial intelligence, but now it's really an interdisciplinary field of its own, says Isler. He works with researchers in computer science, electrical engineering, math, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, and psychology. His own strength is in mathematics--for example, in developing and analyzing algorithms to determine how many robots are needed and in what configurations for a particular task. The field is attracting a lot of young talent from around the world.

"A lot of people think we make robots and play games with them, but we really do a lot of theoretical work, too," he says. "We lure the students in with robots, which motivates them to tackle the underlying math!"

Isler has always been interested in computers. Since elementary school, he has been playing a lot of computer games. At Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey, he wrote his senior thesis on artificial intelligence. Then, he went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. After a postdoc at Berkeley, he joined the faculty at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute before coming to Minnesota in 2008.

The McKnight Land-Grant Professorship will provide critical funds to purchase new equipment that will advance the research in Isler's lab, which already has connections with many other academic labs. During the two-year professorship, Isler will also survey another kind of environment--the research landscape and opportunities for partnerships with the private sector.

"Companies are building on robotics, too. In order to solve the immense problems we are facing, we need to be building relations with them and establishing research connections," he says. "I want to see what they're up to."