Stevens students are always working on exciting projects, and a select team of seven just completed one of particular interest to the Department of Defense. At a joint demonstration in November, the team successfully completed a mission to build a vehicle that could locate and disrupt a communications cable 40 feet underwater.
For three years Stevens has participated in this government program, called Perseus, which asks schools to design and build equipment that could have military value. This year the program, run by the Defense Department’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office, invited Stevens and three other schools – Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida Atlantic University and Florida Keys Community College – to participate.
Michael DeLorme, a research associate at the Davidson Laboratory with the Center for Maritime Systems, has recruited and advised the Stevens teams for all three years. He first recruits a Naval Engineering student and asks him or her to help identify other majors for whatever expertise the team needs. He interviews the recruits and tells them about the time and effort the project demands. Then he gets out of the way.
“The students do this,” DeLorme said. “My role is to just make sure it goes down the proper path. It's all their design and all their planning.”
This year the team included Mechanical Engineering majors John Dubolsky, Tom McMenamin and Ryan Miskanich; Computer Science major Brandon Vandegrift; Naval Engineering major Mike Cianfaglione; Electrical and Computer Engineering major Dan Tipaldo; and Engineering Management major Richard delos Reyes.
“I was interested in joining because I saw it as a great opportunity to mesh the various disciplines that I have been learning over the past five years,” delos Reyes said. “It was also a pretty unique opportunity to actually participate in a sponsored project, within a multidisciplinary team.”
Tipaldo said he joined with a career interest in mind.
“I know that the defense industry is a field I want to pursue post graduation and this was the perfect project,” he said.
The project, which the RRTO funded, began during the spring 2012 semester and continued in the fall, with the students committing to 10-15 hours of work each week. All of the students also took full course loads and many of them worked jobs.
But the students found time to design and build a functional, unmanned underwater vehicle. The metal vehicle, with a frame measuring roughly 24x36 inches, includes thrusters that provide both vertical and horizontal propulsion, positioning sensors for full environmental awareness, remote operated communications gear, and a camera for navigating and identifying the target cable.
The team overcame several challenges, the first being that none of the students had ever built a submarine like this before. The team also had to learn how to work together. DeLorme said the students had to balance their scientific inclinations. For example, a Computer Science major might want to add more sensors, leading the Mechanical Engineering majors to question how to protect them, and whether the craft would then stall from too much bulk. But a lack of sensors showing the way would also stall it.
“There were no instruction manuals on how to build or control a remote-operated-vehicle (ROV),” Dubolsky said. “There was no step by step procedure; instead we had to work to try to isolate individual elements and try to test everything individually.”
The team built the vehicle with only limited access to workshops in the Davidson Lab and the Griffith Building. The team began to regroup in the fall after members spent the summer away from campus or working internships. Then Hurricane Sandy hit just days before the demonstration.
“Once we got back for the fall semester, it was a game of steady catch-up but we were never really back on track until around the end of October,” Dubolsky said. “As soon as we were getting back on our feet, Superstorm Sandy hit and sat us back down.”
The team couldn’t work for almost a week while the power was out, which led to time also running out. Besides finishing the vehicle, the team needed to ship it to the demonstration site at Florida Keys Community College. Fortunately, the Georgia Tech team offered to help. The school saved the Stevens students time on shipping by letting them send the vehicle there, and the Georgia Tech team drove it with theirs down to Key West. The saved time enabled Stevens to finish putting the vehicle together.
The team’s hard work led to a successful mission. DeLorme said the students prepared well for the demonstration.
“They were smart in how they went about the project,” he said. “Before they went off brainstorming they gave good thought on the mission itself.”
DeLorme said he thought the students learned leadership, time management and teamwork.
That tradeoff where they have to come together and learn a little bit of the other disciplines is a helpful experience,” he said.
As the team’s Engineering Management major, delos Reyes said he learned how to handle surprises.
“While it’s important to have plans in place to carry out various tasks, rarely does anything go exactly according to plan,” he said. “We had to be able to adapt to changing environments and events in order to carry out various tasks critical to the success of the mission.”
Tipaldo agreed that the team learned how to manage its time.
“Scheduling is crucial,” he said. “Even when you fall behind, take it as an opportunity to make a new schedule.”
DeLorme said Stevens plans to continue its underwater research. The school just received a $3 million gift from the American Bureau of Shipping, part of which will go toward building a student prototyping lab.
He added that participating in hands-on projects like Perseus helps Stevens meet its academic mission.
“We want to train the next generation of engineers and scientists,” DeLorme said. “We want to make sure the students we're turning out know what they're doing, and these projects do that.”