Engineering students building autonomous submarine for international competition

Part of a yearlong capstone course, the multidisciplinary, undergraduate engineering team is developing an underwater vehicle to detect river pollution

via PennState News

Six students sit with their laptops around a table, which is covered with wires and electronic components.
Students work on the internal electronic components of a robotic submarine that will be able to detect pollution in rivers as a part of their capstone project.IMAGE: TYLER HENDERSON

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team of 21 undergraduate students at Penn State and six students at The Belgium Campus, a university in Pretoria, South Africa, are deep into a yearlong project that will culminate in an international competition in San Diego, California, in August 2020. It is a part of their capstone design course, led by Mike Erdman, Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs at Penn State. Erdman also is a professor of practice in engineering leadership development and engineering science and mechanics.

The goal is to design an underwater autonomous vehicle that can navigate a complicated obstacle course in a pool without human help. The winning vehicle will be the best at navigating gates, identifying various materials, picking up and putting down objects and firing a projectile at a specific target. 

While the students are gearing up for the competition, dubbed RoboSub, they also are pursuing another goal: a fight against water pollution. According to the United Nations, it is likely that more than 80% of wastewater enters the environment without treatment, leading to polluted waterways that can cause illness and even death in humans and the local ecosystems. 

“Not only is the team driving to win the international RoboSub competition, but they are also tasking the underwater autonomous vehicle to find pollution, track the source, surface and alert local environmental officers to take action to correct the pollution,” Erdman said. 

The idea for the project sprouted in ENGR 422: Leadership of International Virtual Engineering Teams, a course focused on developing international teams to tackle international engineering problems. Students at both Penn State and The Belgium Campus collaborate on design projects as they model the work of international engineering teams. Each spring, a group of Penn State students travel to South Africa to implement their solutions. 

“The idea of a submarine that could root out pollution sources, such as animal waste or fertilizer run-off, began as a possible project, but there wasn’t enough time in the semester-long course to develop a true solution,” Erdman said. “However, we didn’t have enough time to develop a viable solution to track the source of water pollution. We decided we needed a more comprehensive course to really ‘dive’ into it.” 

With that in mind, Erdman designed a yearlong capstone course centered on developing the vehicle. With the encouragement of faculty in the various departments, 27 students, majoring in aerospace engineering, industrial engineering, engineering science, electrical engineering and computer science, signed up. The project is sponsored by the Penn State Applied Research Laboratory, with additional support from Lockheed Martin, Boeing and the Penn State Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics.

“Lockheed Martin is proud to partner with Penn State’s College of Engineering capstone program,” said Paul Shields, senior mechanical engineer and capstone project sponsor at Lockheed Martin. “We value the university engagement and creative application of technology that will shape the future of engineering design, specifically at the undergraduate level. The RoboSub competition presents a great opportunity for Lockheed Martin to partner with the University and other industry sponsors and reinforce the importance of cross-domain collaboration. We are excited to be a part of the team’s personal, technical and professional development as they conclude their undergraduate curriculum and prepare for the next steps in their engineering careers.” 

Boeing shared Lockheed Martin’s sentiment. 

“Boeing is proud to sponsor engineering students at Penn State in their pursuit to win the 2020 RoboSub competition, where they will inspire others in the advancement of autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) technology,” said Patty Stevens, Boeing executive focal for Penn State, who earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering at the University. “Even more importantly, the students’ efforts in waterborne pollution identification will demonstrate the practical application of AUV technology toward improving access to clean water, which stands to greatly improve the lives of those around the world who are the most in need.”

Even with corporate sponsorship, the project comes with some challenges, according to Erdman. 

“It’s a challenge to coordinate across so many students in different majors and time zones, especially since the course runs over three semesters,” Erdman said. “But the commitment and excitement exhibited by the students and sponsors ensure that the project will succeed and continue for years to come.”

Penn State has never entered the RoboSub competition before, but the team hopes this year will be the first of many, according to Erdman. 

The students broke the project down into three sub-groups: propulsion and structures, navigation and control, and pollution identification. Within each sub-group, the goals are broken down even further while still maintaining full team integration. For example, the team must fully understand how to interface with identification software to properly trigger an arm that can bend, grab, hold and move specific materials. Each step requires specific instructions and the hardware must be fully capable of performing each assigned task — and that’s just for the competition. 

“I hope we can build a vehicle that is able to win the RoboSub competition,” said Michael Brady, a senior majoring in electrical engineering and member of the propulsion and structures sub-group. “This vehicle will represent Penn State’s debut in the competition, and we want to make an impact — especially with the end product of this project, which will help locate sources of pollution and have societal benefit.” 

The students are developing sensors to detect pollution, as well as a processing system that can determine which direction the pollution is coming from. The system will help the submarine swim toward the pollution source, where it will surface and transmit an alert via Wi-Fi to a local monitor, such as a park ranger, who can take action to correct the issue.  

“I hope to create something that will allow us to accurately, inexpensively and quickly help track the sources of pollution in waterways,” said Samuel C. Nauman, a senior majoring in engineering science and project lead for the pollution identification sub-group. “When we accomplish this, we will have a little extra hope moving forward.” 

Nauman also noted a major challenge of the project has been the team’s budget, which has thrown the financial reality of current technologies into sharp contrast with the product they are imagining. Still, according to Nauman and Erdman, the project is progressing. 

“It’s a big project,” Erdman said. “Sometimes, we still think we might be crazy, but it’s coming together, and it’s great to see everyone so enthusiastic about their work.” 

To travel to the competition, as well as to eventually travel to South Africa and other areas that may be able to use the vehicle, the group is currently crowdfunding

“Our goal is help people get clean water,” Erdman said. “If we could help, that’d be huge.”

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