Bringing Computer Science to the Ocean with Underwater Drones

Hand holding tube of water
Shital Waters, a graduate student in computer science, has co-founded BluePlanetAI, which is developing plans to detect harmful bacteria in oceans, lakes, and other bodies of water. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Shital Waters was a newcomer to computer science. The COVID-19 pandemic forced her to find novel ways to connect with her fellow graduate students. She joined several organizations that communicated via Zoom.

“I still can’t believe it sometimes,” says Waters of the career possibilities that have ensued.

With five Northeastern classmates, Waters developed a project that has turned into a startup, BluePlanetAI, that will deploy underwater drones to detect dangerous bacteria before it can develop in oceans, lakes, and other bodies of water.

Portrait of Shital Waters

Waters has starred in a series of cultural YouTube videos that present serious issues in a lighthearted way. Courtesy Photo Shital Waters

In support of her efforts to create BluePlanetAI, Waters has received an inaugural $5,000 Innovator Award from Northeastern’s Women Who Empower inclusion and entrepreneurship initiative. The awards recognize 19 women who are graduates or current students at Northeastern. The organization is distributing a total of $100,000 in grants to help fund 17 ventures.

BluePlanetAI is focused on mitigating harmful algae blooms—including red tide—that proliferate in sea and fresh water to create toxins that can harm people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds.

Waters’ team is developing a system in which drones would identify the harmful bacteria before the blooms can cause widespread damage. BluePlanetAI is in the early stage, and the Innovator Award is being applied to research and develop its technology.

“Most of us were planning to work on this project throughout the master’s program for two to three years,” Waters says. “But it’s become so much more than just a school project.”

Waters, whose mother is from India, has had a diverse career. She has starred in a series of cultural videos that present serious issues in a lighthearted way. The most popular of their efforts, “Dark Skinned & Indian,” an eight-minute comedy of love overcoming prejudice, has earned more than two million views on YouTube since its 2014 release.

“We were always coming up with ideas of what we could shoot next,” says Waters, who had previously filmed a commercial with the production team. “We decided there are so many problems in our own culture and community, why don’t we try to raise awareness—but in a way that is lighthearted, so people are entertained but still get the message.”

In 2010, Waters survived a townhouse fire that was ignited by the explosion of a neighbor’s propane tank.

“I had just got back from India—my parents were still in India—and I was sleeping when I heard a little crackle and my neighbor’s dog barking,” says Waters, who woke up to see flames closing in on both sides of her second-floor room. She escaped without harm but she and her family lost everything they owned, including her father’s business as a mechanic, which he had operated from the garage. Waters worked three jobs to help support the family while she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and biological sciences at San Jose State.

In one of her jobs, as a lead brand ambassador in the Bay Area for Models In Tech, Waters was trained to use, explain, and demonstrate tech products at trade shows and other public events.

“I was around people who had years of experience, and I realized very quickly that it was a male-dominated field,” Waters says. “When I would ask them questions, hoping to get some quality advice, I felt like I wasn’t taken seriously and kind of pushed to the side. Or if I felt they were going to give me some great advice, it came with expectations—they had some intention behind it. It discouraged me a bit.”

She enrolled in the Align program at Northeastern’s location in San Francisco to pursue a master’s in computer science. Waters says she has been inspired by her role in BluePlanetAI as a co-founder and software engineer, her inclusion in a variety of campus groups, and the support of Women Who Empower.

“The award was so great because of the support I was getting from such powerful women,” says Waters. “It’s something I strive to do as well—I hope I can help other young women to be successful.

“I’d like to motivate women who have gone through the same path as me and have had the same kinds of struggles. I want them to know they should never give up and keep pushing through, because if you do, you will make it.”

The Innovator Awards are meant to strengthen Northeastern’s community of entrepreneurs, says Betsy Ludwig, executive director of women’s entrepreneurship at Northeastern.

“With BluePlanetAI, Shital is seeking to solve one of the world’s biggest, most complex challenges of our lifetime: monitoring and protecting our oceans from climate change,” says Ludwig. “As we know, our oceans affect everything from the air we breathe to the food we eat.  We admire Shital’s commitment to ambitious innovation and are thrilled to be supporting her with a Women who Empower Innovator Award as an entrepreneur, scientist and innovator.”

The experience has elevated Waters’ career expectations.

“If this really takes off, which I’m hoping it does, then I’ll be focusing on this,” Waters says of BluePlanetAI. “But I would also like to do other things in terms of entrepreneurship. There are just so many problems out there that can be solved using new advanced technologies.”

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