Research & Innovation

Weapons in the Water: Stevens Students Design Unmanned Underwater Vehicle to Locate Submerged Explosives

Researchers estimate at least 31 million pounds of unexploded and potentially dangerous bullets, bombs, mines, missiles and chemical munitions are lurking beneath the oceans off the coasts of at least six U.S. states – some from as far back as the Civil War, World War I and World War II and others from more recent military training exercises.

Stevens student innovators are using advanced science and technology to protect swimmers, divers, vessels and coastal communities from the sudden detonation of these unexploded ordnances, or UXOs, that are submerged underwater.

Ethan Hayon, Joe Huyett, Don Montemarano, Mark Siembab, Michael Giglia and Brandon Vandegrift make up a team of Stevens undergraduate students who participated in a government program called Perseus, which challenged five university teams to build underwater vehicles capable of locating and analyzing inert explosive devices located 40 feet beneath the water’s surface.

At a demonstration in November at Florida Keys Community College, the Stevens team of mechanical engineering, naval engineering and computer science students successfully completed the program mission. They located and identified two inert UXOs that had been dropped into a dive lagoon by the U.S. Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division.

The Stevens vehicle consists of an aluminum frame with sealed tubular demihulls holding batteries and critical electronics. The vehicle uses commercial, off-the-shelf thrusters for propulsion and position control. Location and identification of UXOs is accomplished through a network of layered sensors consisting of: imaging SONAR; magnetometer; three high definition video cameras; and a laser dimensioning system. All of this sensor data is fed back to a user interface on shore, where along with other sensor data, it is utilized for navigation, vehicle control, target identification and positioning. 

Communication is handled by a tether to a surface platform with a wireless link to shore, where the operator maneuvers the vehicle remotely in three axes. The operator can see live, real-time feeds from the underwater cameras on a student-designed graphic user interface running sophisticated computer software. The software analyzes other sensor inputs, such as target dimension measurements from the lasers and target composition data from the metal detectors. This information enables the operator to know the size and makeup of a submerged object, even if visibility is obstructed, and then analyze what type of munition it is and assess what threat it poses.

Another unique feature is the autonomous depth control system, which allows the operator to set the vehicle to ascend or descend to a certain depth and stay there, moving forward, back and sideways only.

“Our vehicle has great control and runtime and gives us tons of information and diagnostic data about the targets because of its many sensors,” said Hayon. “It is also extremely modular so we can add and remove systems easily.”

“This is an extremely challenging problem, and what the team came up with was very innovative,” said Michael DeLorme, research associate at the Davidson Laboratory and the team’s faculty advisor. "To develop a functional unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) is challenging in and of itself, but this group also selected and integrated multiple sensors and devised and implemented the entire mission plan. That is an extraordinary accomplishment by an impressive group of young engineers."

The Stevens vehicle cost approximately $15,000 to design and build over a nine month time period. The students also conducted three days of testing just prior to the demonstration in Florida, where they made last-minute adjustments to the vehicle’s waterproofing to cope with the salinity and pressure of the ocean environment compared to the pools and rivers where they had previously operated the vehicle.

This is the fourth student group from Stevens that has participated in a UUV design, develop and demonstrate project for the Department of Defense and the second straight year a team took part in the Perseus program, which is organized and funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office. The program enables the government to gain insights into technological innovation from outside the traditional defense establishment with the potential to quickly meet defense and security needs. In 2012, the Stevens’ unmanned underwater vehicle was also successful in that year’s challenge – to disrupt an underwater communications cable.

The other participating teams in the 2013 program were from Florida Keys Community College, Florida Atlantic University, Georgia Institute of Technology and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The 2013 Stevens team will continue to work on the vehicle, with plans to add sonar-based underwater positioning technology and additional autonomous capabilities.

Stevens students who are interested in participating in future projects should contact Michael DeLorme at [email protected]

Photo Caption: By Hunter Ledbetter; Courtesy of Florida Keys Community College