Thursday, August 9, 2012

Who's Who: Val Schmidt

Val Schmidt is a research engineer at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM) at the University of New Hampshire. CCOM is both a research and teaching institution that boasts a wide variety of focuses. These include sonar signal processing and calibration, satellite and underwater image processing, 4D visualization methods, and acoustic remote sensing, to name a few. Funded largely by NOAA's Office of Coast Survey, CCOM has a wealth of talented staff that works in the various breadths of ocean mapping. There, Val's work focuses on using AUVs for hydrographic mapping.


Val's connection to CSHEL is through his role as our chief engineer of AUV operations. Val has been working as the liaison between CSHEL and CCOM since the acquisition of CSHEL's AUV in 2009. In a collaborative effort, they have developed and reworked routine AUV operations, written data-processing software, worked with manufacturers, and developed three new modules. Val also teaches graduate students the workings of the AUV, from programming to operations to basic care.


Val's interest in the field was catalyzed by his time as an officer in the U.S. Navy. When he was an undergraduate, he joined the Navy and became an officer in the submarine fleet. He was stationed aboard the USS HAWKBILL submarine in Pearl Harbor for three years, a time he describes as a pivotal point in his life. In 1998, the ship was chosen to travel under the Arctic ice cap, mapping the seafloor and overhead ice while simultaneously measuring water chemistry, as part of a collaborative program between the Navy and the National Science Foundation. Each summer, over sixty days were spent under the polar ice cap. While Val did not remain in the Navy, he looks back upon that time as a challenging and important experience.


Before working at CCOM, Val completed his master's thesis there. His thesis was a unique investigation into acoustic positioning methods for whales. Every year, NOAA scientists tag some of the hundreds of humpback, finback, minke, and right whales that travel to Stellwagon Bank off of Boston's coast to feed in the summer. The tags provide useful information regarding the whale's behavior and swimming paths. While the tags do allow scientists to see an accurate representation of the whale's track, the tags do not produce absolute position. In Val's thesis, he developed a new system that would define the absolute position of the whale. Three high-frequency acoustic pingers aboard small boats followed the selected whale after it had been tagged. The tags record the signals from each of the pingers along with whale vocalizations. The measurements of the tag are converted to a distance relative to each boat, and the whale's position can be calculated, just as a GPS receiver locates its position from satellites.


Everyone at CSHEL is looking forward to joining Val as he co-hosts AUV Hydrographic Boot Camp at CCOM in a little over a week. There, he and Art will collaborate with a wide variety of scientists, professionals, and students to develop and rework the operational methods of AUVs.




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