Unmanned vessel innovations help to advance next-generation naval vessels

“Imagine a world where you could have a boat and just tell it where to go, [and it could arrive there] without any human input,” muses Edmund Hoffman, mechatronics engineer of the Stevens Institute of Technology Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) Senior Design Team. As part of their capstone senior project, the team is participating in the international effort to realize unmanned vessel technology. On June 20th-24th, 2012, they will take their ASV to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and Office of Naval Research-sponsored 5th International RoboBoat Competition, where some of the nation’s best science and engineering students will deploy ASVs of their own design and construction in an international competition that takes their vessels through an arduous aquatic obstacle course.

Roboboat video
VIDEO: Roboboat in action

"This Stevens team is facing leading international competition, and they will once again showcase the top-tier talent of our graduating engineers," says Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science.

The team’s ASV will have to navigate an aquatic obstacle course of colored buoys before performing various other challenges, such as grabbing a hockey puck and delivering it to land. While those capabilities are noteworthy in themselves, the true difficulty arises from the requirement that the vehicle be self-sufficient and able to perform the tasks autonomously.

“I feel that they are on their way to a success that will make them and Stevens proud,” says Dr. Michael DeLorme, Research Associate & adjunct professor of Naval Engineering. “This year’s team has decided to add sensor capabilities to their ASV in hopes of exceeding the success of last year’s group. This decision brought significant challenges and risks that the team has been working very hard to overcome. Their vision system, which is the most critical on the ASV, makes use of existing technology from a completely different industry. It is this type of innovation and cross disciplinary thinking that demonstrates the strength of our student research.”

“It has been exhilarating to apply our classroom knowledge on a long hands-on project,” says Mechanical Engineer Rei Darwin Flores. The team members all agreed that working with engineers from other disciplines has been invaluable to their progress. “You get to see things from a new perspective,” says head computer engineer Daniel Bolella. “Sometimes you clash on ideas, and sometimes you say to yourself, ‘Wow, I would never have thought of that.’” If their project and their ASV are particularly inventive, the Office of Naval Research will be watching in the hopes of applying resourceful student innovations to real-world problems in naval engineering and autonomous vehicles.

"The multidisciplinary engineering education of the team has prepared them for this invaluable experience, and they go into the competition as some of the finest emerging engineers in the country," says Dr. Frank Fisher, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Nanotechnology Graduate Program.

Roboboat team in Davidson Labs
Roboboat team in Davidson Labs

The students linked a Microsoft Kinect camera to the ship's onboard computer for sensing, panning and tilting. The Kinect camera senses depth and communicates with the onboard computer to let it know when an object is in the vessel's path.

After the design and assembly of the ASV, the Stevens team first tested it in a local reservoir to see how it handled by remote control and captured camera data, all the while fielding questions from curious onlookers. They then implemented the sensing capability and began major testing in the state-of-the-art Davidson Laboratory towing tank at Stevens. The high speed towing tank is a straight tank of water 313 feet long and 16 feet wide, supporting water depths as high as 7 feet. It is one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the United States. "It's an amazing experience to have access to a world-class research facility as a student," says project manager Travis Krichman.

The Stevens ASV team is an interdisciplinary team comprised of five Mechanical Engineer majors, two Computer Science majors, and a Naval Engineering major.

Travis Krichman, the project manager, is a senior mechanical engineering major responsible for advancing progress on all areas of the ASV project. Task manager Shawn Warren is a senior mechanical engineering major in charge of organizing project components and group meetings. Edmund Hoffman, a senior mechanical engineering major, is the project’s mechatronics engineer and primary liaison to the Computer Engineering team. Rich Adamski is a senior mechanical engineering major. He is the team’s mechanical design engineer, accountable for design changes to current and new components. Rei Darwin Flores is a senior mechanical engineering student conducting product research that will enhance project development. Daniel Bolella is a computer science student directing all programming aspects and components of the project. Mike Caruso is the team’s second senior computer science major. He is also working on programming aspects of the project. Greg Charriez is a junior Naval Engineering student in charge of the hull design and propulsion systems of the ASV system.

Visit the Stevens ASV Project website for more information.