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Underwater Robots Test Software Engineer's Mettle

By Cindy Atoji Keene

There’s a James Bond-style aura around the types of exploratory remote machines that software engineer Sandy Takacs helps develop. Whether it’s military satellite systems or smart mine hunters towed through the water by a helicopter, Takacs has been in the forefront of designing and developing smart software for next-generation vehicles. Takacs’ latest endeavor is testing undersea robots made by Hydroid, Inc., a Pocasset-based manufacturer of unmanned underwater vehicles. “These vessels are less mystical once you understand their nuts and bolts and know how they work, but just imagine encountering one of these bright yellow vehicles with a fin and strobe light emerging from the deep,” said Takacs, 50. “It’s fascinating how far we have come with this technology.”

Underwater robots, also called autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) because they will swim by themselves, helped locate the wreckage of an Air France plane that crashed three years ago. AUVs, equipped with sensors, sonars, and navigation systems, are also used for ocean mapping, pipeline inspection, homeland security, and fishery operations, among other tasks. Takacs’ role is to ensure that the “mission” assigned to the systems can actually be accomplished.

Q: When you joined Hydroid last summer, what was one of your first challenges?
A: Once we add code modifications to either the vehicle or its user console, we need to verify that those modifications work as expected and that there are no adverse issues with the new software. To do that, we frequently go out onto Buzzard’s Bay, Cape Cod Bay or the Atlantic Ocean off of Chatham to test the new software. One of my first projects required testing the ability of a vehicle to berth to a moving underwater dock. This required that the AUV hone in on the location, then successfully latch. It was the first time in history this was done autonomously, so it was a pretty fun project.

Q: And did it work?
A: With the current, waves, and turbulence from the outboard motors of the surface vessels, it was tough to try to hit the small target. These were all fluctuations that needed to be taken into account within the software algorithms. The algorithms needed to be refined within the vehicle software and reloaded with the new updates. But we were finally able to hone in and make a successful attempt that worked 80-90 percent of the time.

Q: What exactly is an algorithm?
A: Simply a set of instructions that directs the vehicle to perform certain functions; the software controls the propulsion system, including propeller, as well as sensors, sonar and strobe lights. The majority of my coding experience is in C+ and C++ because these languages can handle real-time data as it flows in. I code maybe six hours a day; the rest is testing, documentation and meeting. We’re a small company, so all software engineers have to be nose to the grindstone to get our stuff done on schedule.

Q: Were you always fascinated with technology?
A: I built models as a kid and tinkered with radio-controlled airplanes, boats and cars, and turned lawnmowers into go-carts. Math was one of my strengths in school, and once I took a computer class, I found it fascinating.

Q: You’re a sailor – how does this help with your work?
A: As a sailor since age 8, I am very experienced out on the water, familiar with the vagaries of the wind and ocean current as well as navigation and water safety. We employ professional boat captains to run the company’s vessels but it’s always an advantage when the engineers and the technicians are comfortable with being out on the water.

Q: Do you sail in your free time?
A: I have a catamaran, a windsurfer and a powerboat that I use frequently. Sailing has been my passion almost since I can remember. Raising my three girls now takes precedence, but you can still occasionally find me blasting across Narragansett Bay, trapping out, with a huge grin on my face as I steal a few moments to myself.

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