Research & Innovation

Stevens' Summer Research Institute Navigates COVID-19 by Pivoting to a Virtual Experience

Summer Maritime Security Center research program continues during pandemic

Photo of ocean windfarm

Stevens' Maritime Security Center (MSC) Summer Research Institute (SRI) is an eight-week intensive research program for undergraduate and graduate-level STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students. Since the program's 2010 inception, 210 students representing more than 30 U.S. universities have participated.

This year, the global COVID-19 pandemic prevented SRI students from gathering in person at Stevens, but it didn’t prevent them from coming together virtually to deliver the same level of top-quality research and realize just as much of the professional skill-building that have been hallmarks of the program for more than a decade. Each of the six student teams will submit research posters for consideration in the prestigious Maritime Risk Symposium later this year.

“Over the years, we have developed a solid program format, so transitioning the program framework to an online platform for the first time ever wasn’t too heavy of a lift,” said Beth Austin-DeFares, Director of Education, Maritime Security Center. “To keep the students inspired and engaged from their remote locations, we organized a compelling webinar series hosted by Department of Homeland Security professionals.

"We worked hard to build community and enhance student team dynamics by using Slack and Google Drive as repositories for documents and related comments and research materials, Zoom for team meetings, and Webex for engagement with external stakeholders. In a true testament to their resilience, the students and faculty mentors persevered for an extraordinarily successful summer research experience.”

Student presentations gain a wider (virtual) audience

For the 2020 virtual SRI program, which ran from June 1 to July 24, nearly two dozen students from five universities — Boston University, City College of New York, Montclair State University, Stevens Institute of Technology, and Texas Southern University — were organized into six research teams studying projects proposed by stakeholders from the U.S. Coast Guard and the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate.

Guest speakers from those stakeholder groups and other leading organizations, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Texas Military Department, shared their expertise and provided valuable networking opportunities, and many joined the virtual audience during the students’ virtual presentation session on July 23, 2020.

“Roughly 40 stakeholders participated in these final research presentations, and they were more inclined to do this because they didn’t have to travel to campus,” Austin-DeFares reported. “Without a doubt, it facilitated a lot of engagement we wouldn’t have had in the traditional program. There are some perks to having this online!”

Finding tech solutions while working remotely

No one who has ever used a computer or the internet will be surprised that the technology did occasionally misbehave for the students, who were spread across three time zones and working in varied environments where reliable access wasn’t guaranteed. However, the resourceful students and SRI team always found a solution.

“After one student’s computer crashed, I went to campus and got her a loaner computer, and she and her mom drove the 30 miles to my house to pick it up,” Austin-DeFares recalled. “Near one student’s house, a truck knocked down a tower and shut off all internet for three days. A couple of students who moved back home had poor internet connections and low bandwidth issues. We did whatever we had to for these students.”

Most students reported the toughest glitch in the experience wasn’t the technology — it was the unavoidable loss of eagerly anticipated opportunities for in-person interactions and team-building. The weekly Friday Zoom calls for status updates and research presentations, while valuable, didn’t quench their thirst for deeper connections.

But even through that challenge, they found ways to shine while honing key skills, particularly in the emerging arena of virtual collaboration.

“A lot of it was individual, and it was harder to share ideas and get input versus sitting down at a table working with my teammates trying to figure out a problem,” explained Timothy Stephens, a computer science undergraduate at Stevens, who worked on the Risk Management Dashboard and Predictive Analytics team. “But it could also be viewed as a pro. We are going to have to get accustomed to such communications, and I have a different confidence now that I've had experience with both the glitches as well as just the general vibe of doing online conversations. I was able to improve my research and presentation skills exceptionally. We were able to get a lot done the way that we wanted to, which led to a lot of creative solutions.”

“These students are so talented, and the quality of work they achieved is extraordinary,” Austin-DeFares agreed. “There wasn’t one who didn’t step up to the challenge.”

In a survey conducted after the program ended, 73 percent of the students said the SRI enhanced their interest in advanced academic study and careers in homeland security, and 100 percent said they would recommend the program.

“The whole program has been a massive learning experience, and even a unique bonding experience, all being in this situation where we’re all affected by the circumstances of the world,” said Christine Huang, Stevens mechanical engineering undergraduate and Pinnacle Scholar, and part of the Sulfur Emission Detection team. “Even remotely, there's a lot to gain, whether that be connections with networking, or improving professional skills like communicating and presenting, or just learning about the maritime domain and seeing if you would want to pursue something in the industry.

"I would definitely recommend this program for anyone who's interested.”

Dashboards to manage maritime risk

Last year, one SRI team developed the concept for a risk management dashboard to help the U.S. Coast Guard display and analyze safety, security, and law enforcement incident data from its extensive Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) database. The database includes  vessel collisions, near collisions, environmental spills and other pollution, criminal activity, security breaches and additional situations of concern.

Fast, efficient analysis of this data is crucial for making proactive resource allocation and budgetary decisions that improve safety and security outcomes.

This year’s team took up the baton, creating a working dashboard with an interactive, flexible, graphical user interface (GUI) design; new relevant data sets; and even predictive analytics functionality.

The project focused on the local New York Coast Guard sector, which spans more than 6,000 square miles including the Port of New York and New Jersey. Mentors included Barry Bunin, a civil, environmental, and ocean engineering research professor and Chief Architect of the Maritime Security Laboratory; Talmor Meir, Senior Lead Data Scientist, Verisk Analytics, a 2010 SRI alumna who offered to help out with this year’s program; and John Hillin, Safety and Security Division Chief for the U.S. Coast Guard Sector New York.

Gil Austria, a Stevens computer science undergraduate, took the lead on  geographic cluster analysis to identify high-incident-density areas.  Stephens focused on seasonality and other historic trends.

“If you see a certain spike in June that's consistent along all search and rescue incident sites, then that would be considered a seasonal peak,” explained Stephens. “Or if you see a dip in marine environmental protection incident types in November, that would be a seasonal low.”

Connor Smith, an engineering management undergraduate at Stevens, handled weekly analysis and forecasting and predictive analytics to help provide insight into future incident counts, and Boston University mathematics and computer science undergraduate Amy Seedhom (whose brother was on the 2019 MISLE dashboard team) analyzed the impact of COVID-19 on the Coast Guard’s New York operations.

To build the dashboard, team members created the prototype dashboard using the popular Tableau GUI platform and adding relevant features based on their research. By clearly presenting key data, covering daily updates from 2013 to the present, the dashboard provides analytical insights to help improve daily operations and allocate manpower, patrol ships, and other resources. Past and projected incident types, locations, timing, and seasonality are just some of the parameters available for analysis with only a couple of clicks.

The team sees the project’s next steps as transitioning this prototype into a working application available nationwide, and upgrading from the current manual data input, with as much as a 72-hour delay, to livestreaming incident data to automatically update visuals and forecasts in real time.

“I didn't have much experience or exposure to the maritime field, and it was interesting to see people from all different majors and backgrounds come together and contribute so much,” Stephens said. “No matter what your major or interest is, you can find something within the SRI to do and to flourish in. For example, in our project, there are so many aspects to keeping the coast safe that you can always find something relevant to do. And I also gained a considerable amount of professional development, networking, communication, and research skills that I'll be able to use in the near and far future.”

Wind farms for sustainable energy

A traditional Irish blessing includes the hope, “May the wind be always at your back.” And indeed, wind can be a good thing, especially when it’s helping wind farms generate electricity for renewable energy. Along the mid-Atlantic United States, 15 offshore wind farms are already paving the way for similar projects along the southeastern and western coasts.

However, these offshore wind farms can present serious safety and security issues for Coast Guard search-and-rescue operations and living marine resources. The farms often span hundreds of miles with hundreds of 500-foot — or taller — towers, each with a rotating vane and an electricity-generating turbine, plus booster and reactive compensation stations for efficient transmission of power from wind farm to shore. These installations can impair radio transmissions and radar systems, interfere with helicopter search paths, and even alter the direction and speed of ocean currents and wakes, affecting hydrodynamic predictive models used to locate distressed parties as they drift with the current.

Underwater components are also susceptible to corrosion, damage, and biofouling (the accumulation of microorganisms), all of which pose risks to both the integrity of the structures and the safety of maintenance personnel.

In this research study, the students combed through relevant publications, developed a set of possible impacts, and proposed mitigations to minimize those effects.

“We were mainly concerned with the wind turbine and the submarine cables, and my role was to study the effect of the marine environment and human activity on the windfarm structures, and what risks compromised structures pose on Coast Guard operations and safety,” explained Cheyenne Petzold, who began graduate studies at Montclair State University this fall. Stevens undergraduates Troy Chartier-Vignapiano, (physics) and Gabriel Garcia (electrical and electronics engineering) rounded out the team, while Bunin served as the team’s advisor.

“In preparation for our meeting with Stevens professors Phil Orton and Reza Marsooli, we studied up on predictive models and ocean currents, and that helped us better understand how wakes occur in the ocean,” Petzold said. “Our meeting with Brian McSorley, Coast Guard Deputy Sector Commander from Sector Southeastern New England, helped us narrow down key focuses. He was able to point out some issues we hadn't even considered.”

The team outlined a comprehensive plan for potential mitigation strategies, including improving submarine cable placement planning and protection, preventing both corrosion and biofouling with special coatings, controlling growth with physical cleaning by robots or handheld tools, and even nurturing those artificial reefs for their biodiversity. In addition, recommendations included continued assessment of the impact of wind turbines on radar transmissions, and consideration of wind shear, water movement, and wakes in the simulations to better predict the progress of a boat in distress near a wind farm.

This project is expected to continue throughout the coming year.

A handheld sulfur-detection device

According to the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO), billions of tons of vital goods travel the world’s oceans every year, but the heavy fuel oils powering those ships emit sulfur oxides that can cause debilitating respiratory ailments, lung disease, and acid rain pollution.

On January 1, 2020, IMO regulations reduced the maximum allowed sulfur content in these diesel fuels from 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent. It’s great news for the environment, and especially for people who live near ports and coasts. However, it wasn’t entirely great news for the U.S. Coast Guard, which had the responsibility but not the best tools to effectively enforce these regulations in U.S. waters.

An SRI team took up the challenge to help the U.S. Coast Guard enforce these regulations with a handheld, highly sensitive, zinc oxide nanowire device to provide a faster, more reliable, more precise, and more affordable detection system to detect and measure sulfur content in ship emissions on an industrial scale.

Amar Bindra, Stevens chemical engineering undergraduate, developed the nanotechnology-based sensors. Christine Huang conducted simulations of sulfur emissions. City College of New York undergraduates Edhar Muradov and Satesh Ramnath designed the prototype for the handheld measurement apparatus. Bunin, Jonathan Adamson, a Stevens chemistry and nanotechnology graduate student and Bruce Kim of City College of New York provided expertise.

“First I examined physical stress points with individual sulfur molecules attached to a single nanowire,” Huang recalled. “Then I reached out to Dr. Frank Fisher, who helped us understand the chemical breakdown that would occur before any physical breakdown, and we changed our strategy to focus on plume modeling. We wanted to determine whether sulfur dioxide is feasibly measurable and where the optimal spots would be.

"I would say I ran 50 to 100 simulations, modeling just a box representing a ship, up to a realistic version, and changing variables like having the wind come from different directions or at different speeds. It was my first experience working with nanotechnology and simulation tools like ANSYS. It was a very good learning experience for me.”

Having no access to a lab to conduct chemical tests with the nanowires didn’t stop the team from experimenting. The prototype device had its trial run at Ramnath’s home, where the indoor test found no high sulfur dioxide concentrations, but his car exhaust emitted pollution levels that would fail the IMO’s standards.

Because this project is being conducted as part of the federal Minority Serving Institution Summer Research Team program, the Sulfur Emissions Detection team members will be able to apply for up to $50,000 in additional Department of Homeland Security funding to continue their research.

Designing better watercraft through AI

Since the very first canoes and rafts, people have found creative ways to build, power, and guide water-based transportation. But can today’s artificial intelligence (AI) platforms improve the design, remove the captain, move with net-zero energy—and prove the concept?

That’s the multi-faceted question Stevens students Jack Bonoli, a naval engineering major; Kevin Raleigh, a graduate ocean engineering researcher; and Tyler Wright, a computer engineering major, investigated under the guidance of Stevens mechanical engineering professor Brendan Englot.

Using exemplary seed designs from existing energy-harvesting sailing vessels and wave gliders, the team explored whether AI could generate the design for a high-performance wave adaptive modular vessel (WAM-V) capable of surveying and monitoring coastal environments for long durations without human assistance — and whether they could computationally validate their prototype. It was a complex process involving the critical synchronization of the interconnected navigation systems, control systems, instrumentation, hull shape and structure, fuel or batteries, auxiliary systems, and energy efficiency.

“This led us to a simulation software used for the 2019 Virtual RobotX (VRX) robotics competition, where an unmanned surface vessel would have to perform tasks such as navigating through an obstacle course, identifying the color of buoys, or just staying stationary,” said Wright, who worked on the autonomous navigation aspect of the project.

“We found the open source code base of the third-place winning team, from the University of Sydney, and then we even collaborated with that team on how we could best modify the code and the software for our own purposes. It was really lucky that we found the code that we could use as a launching board.”

The team wrote a program that would automatically drive a vehicle directly to a set of eight waypoints, then tested four animated prototypes of varying demi-hull sizes and structures in both straight-line and figure-eight navigation in various wind and wave conditions.

“We had to ask ourselves, how are we going to feed that into the simulation in a way that the physics behind it will be understood by the simulation,” Wright explained. “We found a study that took catamarans and compared their demi-hull size and gap spacing to the added mass and drag coefficients, and we came out with added mass and drag coefficient values that we could feed into the simulation and get four sets of results for the vessels that we were testing.”

The team validated that the two vessels with the larger demi-hulls, regardless of the gap between the hulls, performed the best. Despite the great strides made this summer, this team knows it has only dipped its toe in the water of this vast project, and recommended that any future iterations include a simulation tool with additional physics options, testing of more vessel types, an even wider range of parameters, and a deeper dive into energy harvesting. But for now, these three are pleased that they learned the ropes and ran a tight ship.

“It was very well-organized, and very fun, and a very enriching experience,” Wright said. “I learned a lot.”

The Maritime Security Center is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate Center of Excellence in port and maritime security.

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