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Dive Into Autonomous Subs

Ocean researchers like to say we know less about the Earth’s seas than the moon. With less than 5 percent of the world’s oceans explored, big discoveries await. To find them, University of Rhode Island students are learning to build the next generation of autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, used to map seafloors, study ocean movement, locate sunken objects, research sea life and more.

by University of Rhode Island
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engineering studentsURI engineering students learn about a Bluefin AUV that they will help improve.University of Rhode IslandLed by ocean engineering Assistant Professor Stephen Licht, a class of 10 engineering students is getting a unique look at emerging AUV technology. The class partnered with Bluefin Robotics, an AUV manufacturer in Massachusetts, to study and test one of its newest vehicles, the 36-inch long SandShark.

During spring 2015, the URI students will learn about the science of motion underwater, propulsion systems, electronics that control a vehicle’s movement and sensors that monitor systems and the surrounding environment. At the end of the course, they will combine their knowledge and test their theories on a real Bluefin vehicle.

“Being able to build a vehicle and watch it work, that is pretty awesome,” says Rebecca Cressman, an ocean engineering student from Middletown, RI.

The class includes engineering students from ocean, electrical and mechanical engineering collaborating on the AUV. And because Bluefin is developing the vehicle as open source, students can see how every bit of hardware and software operates.

“It’s challenging. There are a lot of different parts that have to fit together perfectly,” says Scott Hara, an ocean engineering student from Norwalk, Conn. “But because it’s a challenge it’s very satisfying when it works well.”

Early in the semester, Bluefin engineers paid a visit to the students to explain how the SandShark works. Licht says it provided students a unique opportunity to peer under the hood and talk to the engineers who designed the vehicle.

Now students are own their own, tinkering with designs and working in teams to improve the AUV. They spend much of their time in a lab in the Narragansett Bay campus. Outfitted thanks to a Champlin Foundations grant, the lab includes a 3-D printer for rapid prototyping, sensors, test systems and tools for constructing components.

In the lab, Licht encourages students from different engineering disciplines to tackle challenges as a team. Electrical engineering student Thomas Hamilton, of Northborough, Mass., appreciates the interdisciplinary spirit.

“Ultimately in the real world, you’re going to end up working in different groups of people with different disciplines so it’s important to get that experience,” he says.

Licht jumped at the opportunity to offer the experience. Before coming to URI, he worked on marine robotic projects for iRobot, the company best known for its autonomous vacuum cleaners. Once at URI he attended a seminar given by Mathieu Kemp, then the director of concept development for Bluefin. When Kemp mentioned the company’s latest project, Licht asked about marrying it with his course.

“I had it on my mind to do something like this for a while,” he says. “I really wanted to give engineering students a chance to understand a vehicle design from soup to nuts, and this was the perfect chance.”