Scripps Oceanography Researcher Receives Young Investigator Award

Office of Naval Research award will support Sophia Merrifield's work on robotic systems

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has named Sophia Merrifield, a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, as a recipient of its Young Investigator Program (YIP) for 2021. The YIP is one of the oldest and most selective scientific research advancement programs in the country. 

The YIP awards support laboratory equipment, postdoctoral researchers, graduate student stipends and scholarships, and other expenses critical to the planned research. Typical grants for the 38 recipients range from $510,000 to $750,000 over a three-year period.

“I’m honored to have been selected by ONR to develop observational techniques using robotic vehicle teams for sensing the upper ocean and air-sea interface,” said Merrifield. 

Merrifield was awarded the YIP to study dynamical processes in marine atmospheric and oceanic boundary layers—regions where the atmosphere and ocean exchange heat and momentum—using a set of aerial, surface, and underwater autonomous robotic systems (UxVs). Oceanographic features such as internal waves and fronts will be detected at the ocean surface using radar, and UxVs will be deployed to further understand their subsurface and atmospheric variability. 

Merrifield said this overwatch framework—in which radar systems “watch over” the robots—will allow the robots to be “at the right place and time” for rapid mapping of the atmospheric and oceanic boundary layers in these complex regions. Data collected will also be used to test physical models of electromagnetic and sound propagation across these features. The multi-agent system will be developed in a La Jolla testbed and mobilized for upcoming ship-based programs. 

“The fields of autonomy and robotics have grown rapidly in other domains,” said Merrifield. “I look forward to extending these developments to improve our understanding of interactions between the ocean and atmosphere.”

Thomas Drake, Head of ONR’s Ocean Battlespace and Expeditionary Access Department was enthusiastic about the proposed research topic, commenting that “Dr. Merrifield's Young Investigator award exemplifies ONR's desire to bring new people and new technologies to bear on enduring hard problems. The intricacies of the oceanic air-sea interface are not only critical to Naval operations, but have important implications for climate change. We're incredibly pleased to add Dr. Merrifield to the ONR team.”

Merrifield joined Scripps in 2016 as a postdoctoral researcher and is now an assistant researcher within the Marine Physical Laboratory where she focuses on the intersection of marine physics and robotics. In addition to her research, she teaches Hacking for the Oceans, a new UC San Diego course in which students work closely with outside sponsors to develop rapid prototypes and innovative solutions to ocean-related challenges. Merrifield also recently led the data analytics for an expedition that mapped tens of thousands of targets at potential DDT dump sites off the coast of Los Angeles, developing automated algorithms for side-scan sonar data collected from deep sea robots.

“In this era of great power competition, our nation must sustain a military advantage,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Lorin C. Selby. “To do so, it is essential that we attract the best and brightest scientists and engineers from across academia to tackle naval warfighting challenges.”

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

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