Billings headshot

Gideon Billings

NUI Team
Graduate Student
University of Michigan

Tell us about your work/research. What kinds of things do you do?

I specialize in computer vision and perception for underwater robots, where the focus of my research is to enable autonomous underwater manipulation through the visual methods I develop. Specific vision tasks that have been a focus of my research include object detection and pose estimation, 3D scene reconstruction, and vision-informed control of working-class hydraulic manipulators. The ultimate goal of my research is to replace ROV pilots with an automated system, where a pilot or scientist can provide high-level task commands, and the system will execute the tasks autonomously, using visual sensors and the scene understanding methods developed through my work to inform the task execution. My work and the resulting technology advancements is not only relevant to Earth-bound subsea intervention missions, where safety and efficiency can be improved through the automated system, but it is also relevant to future exploration of extraterrestrial ocean environments, such as Europa, an ice moon of Jupiter.

What sparked your initial interest in your career?

I started tinkering with electronics and robots in grade school. I had a natural bent towards engineering, and as I gained more exposure to robotics, the field captured my imagination. I was also fascinated with the natural world, especially the ocean, from a very young age, despite growing up far away from the ocean, and not getting my first glimpse of it until my first summer internship in college. After spending a semester studying abroad in Australia, where I spent every moment possible scuba diving and surfing, I was completely smitten with the wonders of the subsea world and I became set on a career path that would keep me intimately connected with the ocean.

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

During my formative years, my parents enabled me to explore my interests and discover myself and who I wanted to become. They encouraged me to spend time in nature and value the gift of life. I was also very close with my oldest brother, who went to college for engineering and sparked my initial interest in the field. He also got my my first robotics kit.

What element of your work/study do you think is the most fascinating?

Underwater robotic technologies have lifted the veil of ignorance between us and the deep ocean, and every time I participate in science cruises of exploration, I am in wonder of the vastness and diversity of the life and ecosystems hidden in the depths. Learning about the pyramid of life, with the ocean as the cornerstone of our and all life's existence on this planet gives me the sense that my work is greater than myself, and in some way, the technology I develop and the knowledge acquired through that enabling technology will lead us to a truly sustainable way of existence and conservation of our natural environments.

What other jobs led you to your current career?

I had engineering internships throughout my undergraduate college years, which confirmed my desire to pursue an academic career focused on research in robotics and ocean related technology.

What are your degrees and certifications?

Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering - University of Michigan 2016; Masters of Robotics - University of Michigan 2019

What are your hobbies?

I am an avid scuba diver, and I love water sports including surfing, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, and kayaking. I enjoy many activities that get me out in nature, including hiking, backpacking, photography, rock climbing, skiing, and disc golf. My at-home hobbies also keep me busy and include board gaming, cooking, fitness, and reef aquarium keeping. I also play the accordion and enjoy martial arts.

How did you get involved with the Ocean Exploration Trust?

I collaborate with a Lead Scientist at WHOI

What advice would you give someone who wants to have a carer like yours?

I knew from a young age that I was interested in robotics, particularly in the area of exploratory robots. I applied myself in high school to learning to code and gaining technical experience which would make my resume stand out. As I became more interested in ocean related robotics, I looked for opportunities to connect with professors researching in that area and was fortunate to get into a Ph.D. program in my exact field of interest. During my Ph.D., I have built a strong global network of collaborators and colleagues who have helped connect me in my career path, and I can draw on them for support and guidance. I would say networking is key, so if you are passionate about ocean research, look for opportunities to connect with researchers in your field of interest. You never know when an opportunity may open up, so be ready to jump on opportunities and see where they will take you.

We only have one planet, and so far, the only known source of life, yet so much remains to be discovered on our own doorstep, cosmically speaking.


Gideon participated in the following Ocean Exploration Trust expeditions: