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With Underwater ROV Ready, Student Team Eyes Global Competition

May 15, 2018

After months of work, a team of students from Wentworth Institute of Technology is heading to a global competition with a submersible ROV that it built from scratch on the university’s Boston campus. Using milling, 3-D printing, and other manufacturing technology, the students designed and assembled the unit to locate and identify aircraft wreckage on the ocean floor.

“This is their project completely,” said Professor James O’Brien, chair of the Department of Sciences, one of several Wentworth faculty members who have helped to guide the 14 students behind the unmanned craft.

Roughly the size of a small suitcase, the sub has 16 or 17 waterproof connections; a team-designed, printed sensor board that powers the ROV’s “mini brain” micro controller; a continually rotating motor, six thrusters, two underwater cameras, an extraction claw, leveling system, and power pod for wireless, inter-circuit transfer. To create neutral buoyancy—keeping the sub from fully sinking to the bottom or floating to the surface—the unit’s aluminum chassis was fitted with polyurethane foam. The ROV’s extraction claw was 3-D printed on campus in the tech space in the Douglas D. Schumann Library and Learning Commons.

Backed by Wentworth’s chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the ROV was a multidisciplinary undertaking in the truest sense. Team members writing in a grant proposal said the project, “provides a unique experience for Wentworth students to learn, grow, succeed, and fail together in an environment that emulates workplace engineering projects.” They said the ROV underscores Wentworth’s mission to provide students with a project-based, experiential learning environment.

The competition, an annual event of Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE), is set for June 21-23 in Federal Way, Washington. It is intended to challenge students to take their physics, math, electronics, and engineering skills from the classroom and apply them to problems from the workforce. The catalyst for the contest is a request for proposals from the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington, which asked for an ROV and crew that can work in the salt and fresh waters of the Pacific Northwest.

The Wentworth team will compete in the event’s highest class, focusing on mandatory tasks from using flight data to determine the search zone for wreckage, to attaching a lift bag to return the engine from a crashed airliner to the surface.

The competition came with specific requirements, including a circumference that does not exceed 64 centimeters and a weight that could not surpass 17 kilograms. And the vehicle had to be pressure rated and watertight, adding an additional layer of complexity to the design, team members said. The team has been testing the sub in a swimming pool at nearby Simmons College.

Behind it all is an interdisciplinary cohort of professors and students at Wentworth, alumni of the university, and other external collaborators. In addition to O’Brien, participating faculty members are: Aaron Carpenter, IEEE Student Chapter advisor and assistant professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Technology, and James McCusker, associate professor, Electrical Engineering and Technology.

Benjamin Waltuch, BELM ‘17, an electrical engineer I at Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, mentored the team and contributed extensive experience in ROV design, mechanical systems integration, and waterproofing, while Kenneth Curran, BSME ‘13, an NC programmer/manufacturing engineer for GE Aviation, offered expertise in design for manufacturing and programming controls.

Leading student team members are: Andrew Zucker, BELM ’19, who manages the 13 students on the project and contributes SolidWorks design experience and circuit board design and manufacturing expertise; Robert Martin, BCOS ’18, the ROV team’s software lead; Alyssa Vallese, BELM ’21, who brings extensive experience with design for manufacturing, as well as interdisciplinary system integration pertaining to robotics; Michael Spalluzzi, BELM ‘19, the acting electrical lead who oversees the work of a subgroup of younger students working in custom electrical printed circuit board design and manufacturing; and John Solari, BSCE ’20, a budding computer engineer who is contributing to the surface station research, design, and construction that is necessary to communicate to the ROV from land.

“There is a lot of student passion at Wentworth, and that shows with this project,” said Alec Hewitt, BELM ’21, a newer arrival to the team whose responsibilities include financing, parts, design, and manufacturing.

Zucker, the team’s quarterback, said he got hooked on robotics in high school and tapped that passion to complete this ROV project after two similar attempts fizzled.

Carpenter said the specific background and focus areas of the individual students has them working precisely as they would if they were already in careers in their respective fields.

“This is like a little start-up,” he said. “They came up with the idea and design specifications, and figured out where they needed to go to get things.”

In addition to funding from IEEE and a couple other sources, the ROV team received a $5,000 mini-grant through Wentworth’s EPIC Learning initiative, or Externally collaborative, Project-based, Interdisciplinary Culture. The team’s grant submission said the project encourages collaborating with other universities and institutions by allowing the Wentworth group to travel to compete with other schools.

“The cardinal theme of this project is encouraging the expansion of knowledge among team members by following Wentworth’s concept of project-based learning,” the document said. “Students actively apply classroom knowledge to the development of the ROV. For example, students designing the multi-directional manipulator that mounts to the front of the ROV applied concepts and equations that were taught in an Engineering Statics courses. Additionally, students working with the electrical sub-team used concept and design skills in their Analog Circuit Design classes to design and manufacture custom PCBs to fit the needs of our ROV.”

Other Wentworth students on the ROV team are: Christopher Thierauf, BCOS ’20; Amin Akbarinakhjavan, BELM ’21; Devin Taylor, BSEE ’21; Joshua Caron, BELM ’21; Donald Risio, BSME ’20; Ryan Maresca, BSAM ’20; and Joseph Prendergast, BELM ’19.

ROV technology, which is continuing to expand, is used by the military and in oceanic exploration. The U.S. Navy uses ROVs for recovery of lost missiles and vessels, and for geographical mapping. Marine scientists use them to safely observe submerged ecosystems without harming marine life.

--Dennis Nealon

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