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Wei Wang
February 6, 2024

Focus on new faculty: Wei Wang charts course for aquatic robots

Written By: Tom Ziemer


An autonomous boat ferries passengers down the water, docking at their destination. Elsewhere, a similar vessel collects garbage from waterfront buildings. Still others converge to form a pedestrian bridge across the water, connecting two busy streets. All while also monitoring water quality.

While the scene sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, it’s not only eminently possible—it’s already been demonstrated. Just ask Wei Wang, who as a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped develop some of the technology behind such a system as part of a pilot project on the famous canals of Amsterdam.

These days, the Roboat project has spun off into a startup company, while Wang has brought his work on aquatic autonomous robots to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering as an assistant professor in January 2024.

Wang works on the design of autonomous robots that can handle complex environments such as water, including the control and navigational systems that allow them to function. Such robots could aid marine science and ocean exploration, efforts to tap into renewable energy and other underwater resources, environmental remediation, urban transportation, and more.

“The oceans hold immense biodiversity and valuable resources, yet they remain one of the least studied environments on Earth,” says Wang. “Marine robotics play a pivotal role as a unique tool for unraveling the secrets of the sea, developing innovative systems for capturing renewable energies, and monitoring and safeguarding our oceans.”

Wang, who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering from Peking University in his native China, spent seven years at MIT, working in both the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Senseable City Lab. As part of the Roboat project, he was first author on a paper chosen for the cover of the Journal of Field Robotics, detailing the 4-meter craft that’s capable of transporting up to 1,000 kilograms (roughly 2,200 pounds).

Wang has also worked on fish-like robots for environmental and marine biology research, part of his interest in bioinspired robots that he plans to continue at UW-Madison. He says organisms such as fish offer clues for designing better systems for movement, communication, sensing, navigation and more in robots.

“By studying these biological systems, we can uncover innovative solutions to longstanding challenges in robotics,” says Wang.

And in the process, Wang hopes to help deepen our understanding of the natural environment and better protect it. In that vein, he’s currently designing an energy-efficient underwater glider with sensors for monitoring water quality, temperature and pollution.

Across his projects, he’s refining control, sensing and perception algorithms that are critical for autonomous aquatic robots. He’s eager to join the growing number of robotics researchers in the College of Engineering and to connect with experts across the UW-Madison campus.

“The field of marine robotics remains relatively underexplored, presenting numerous challenges that require interdisciplinary collaboration,” he says. “I feel like robotics is still growing at UW-Madison, offering ample opportunities for me to make meaningful contributions to research, education, and services related to robotics here.”

Photo by Joel Hallberg