Dolphin researcher nets US$5000 scholarship

10 February 2016

Eric Ferguson

IEEE OES Scholarship Award winner, Eric Ferguson

PhD candidate Eric Ferguson has been awarded a US$5000 scholarship by IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society (OES) for his research into how dolphins produce, detect and process acoustic signals in their natural environment.

We have long known that dolphins use underwater sonar to detect and identify their prey, predators and companions, even at night and in rough water, but this knowledge has been gleaned largely through laboratory-based experiments. Eric’s research will enable us to better understand how free-ranging dolphins use sonar to survive, navigate and avoid collisions in their daily lives. It will also help us to protect their ocean habitat.

“The main focus of my research is the development of high-resolution passive sonar source localisation methods for studying echo-locating dolphins in the wild,” Eric explains.

“I am currently engaged in the development of an autonomous, underwater monitoring system that will give marine biologists a powerful scientific tool set to help them study marine animals. Preliminary results show that my technique is able to locate an individual dolphin echo-locating within a pod of dolphins even at long ranges (up to 300 metres).

“My work will also help with the protection of their ocean habitat through the monitoring of boats, such as the detection of illegal fishing vessels or other vessels trespassing in Australia’s many protected marine national parks.”

OES scholarships recognise students preparing for a career in ocean engineering who demonstrate academic excellence and the ability to perform independent research. Eric, who already holds a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechatronics (Honours) and a Bachelor of Science in Computational Science and Mathematics, has demonstrated both in spades.

His Honours thesis, “Sensors, Signals and Algorithms for the Passive Localisation of Echolocating Dolphins in the Wild”, was awarded a High Distinction, he was a finalist (and the youngest entrant) in the OES’s OCEANS’10 student poster competition, he has previously presented his research at meetings of the IEEE New South Wales and he already has several published papers to his name.

Eric is conducting his PhD research at the University of Sydney’s Computing and Audio Research Laboratory (CARLab) under the supervision of director Associate Professor Craig Jin. His long-term goal is to practise as an oceanic engineer developing complete systems for underwater acoustic research – from sensors to data processor, display and communication subsystems – and then integrating them into robotic vehicles that will enable us to get closer to wild dolphins and their natural behaviours than we’ve ever been before.