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NEWS | May 11, 2020

High School Student Builds Autonomous Underwater Robot via NSWC Dahlgren Division’s SeaGlide Program

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

KING GEORGE, Va. – Alex Dachos thought long and hard about pursuing an independent course of study beyond his high school’s requirements and decided to consult with an engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) for topic ideas.

The Virginia Commonwealth Governor’s School student didn’t have to go far to find an NSWCDD engineer.

His father, Jon Dachos – the human systems integration Surface Combat System lead at NSWCDD – was in the living room and within moments, recommended a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) program called SeaGlide for the independent study.

“We discussed what SeaGlide would entail and figured it would be an insightful learning experience for me,” said Alex, a junior at the King George High School division of the governor’s school, regarding the hands-on, project-based program that allows students to learn engineering design, development, and testing. “It was a challenge for me since I never embarked on a project of this magnitude by myself.”

That father-son discussion about the SeaGlide Program developed by NSWC Carderock Division and sponsored locally by NSWC Dahlgren Division took place on May 15, 2019. 

Over the course of the next year, Alex designed and created his SeaGlide – a small scale minature underwater glider, non teathered autononmous robot that has no propeller, and uses very little energy.

Alex – and scores of students engaged in the program – built a SeaGlide autonomous vehicle that moves by changing its pitch and buoyancy, often by taking in or expelling water. This change in buoyancy causes the glider to rise and sink in the water. As the glider moves up and down and changes pitch, its wings generate lift, which propels the glider forward.

Fortunately, Alex would not be working on the sophisticated SeaGlide Program entirely by himself.

Two NSWCDD STEM volunteers – Jason Philips for the first six months and Bob Taft for the second six months of the program – were always available as mentors and lifelines to help when the high school senior encountered obstacles.

“When Alex had some challenges, he reached out to me for a little mentoring,” said Taft, who participated in SeaGlide mentor training at NSWC Carderock Division. “This was a pleasure but Alex needed very little help.  A few Sunday afternoons and some emailing.  Alex was new to soldering and as a result had some circuits that were not working completely. I contributed some schematics of the circuits and photos of the printed circuit boards and together we traced with a multi-meter until we found the culprits. I coached some de-soldering and soldering.”

While building his autonomous underwater gliding robot, Alex learned basic electronics.

With Taft’s guidance, he soldered the SeaGlide’s circuit board and programmed it with Arduino Pro mini microcontrollers while building servo-driven buoyancy engines with large syringes and moveable mass in order to manage buoyancy and pitch. In the crucial final step of SeaGlide production, Alex worked to ballast the glider for proper underwater flight.

“In the later stages of the project, when the program was uploaded to the Arduino board and the Seaglide was all built, I ran into some serious difficulties with the motor,” said Alex.

Taft, however, helped him trouble shoot through a list of potential issues.

“We finally traced the dilemma to the motor which was not turning in the counter-clockwise direction which wouldn’t allow it to complete the dive and raise cycle,” said Alex.

The student ordered a separate motor from a robotics parts website prior to disassembling the buoyancy engine, replacing the motor, and reassembling the engine to fix the conundrum.

“Mr. Taft was extremely helpful in his assistance especially in the later stages of Seaglide,” said Alex. “The whole issue I faced with the motor in the buoyancy engine was giving me a real hard time but with Mr. Taft by my side, we were able to figure it out together. He thoroughly understood the machine but let me configure and test it to see if I could identify and fix the problem myself with bits and pieces of helpful advice. Mr. Taft was also very flexible on meeting times and contributed a lot of his own personal time and effort to make sure I understood the meaning of the Seaglide’s components and internal operation.”

While constructing his SeaGlide, Alex learned organization as well as the technical aspects of the program.

“With Seaglide being the long-term project that it was, I learned how to pace myself and manage my schedule to allow quality work time on the project,” said Alex. “After high school, I plan to attend the United States Naval Academy or the U.S. Coast Guard Academy for either electrical engineering or chemistry. I plan to continue volunteering for STEM events in my local area to help local students increase their exposure to science.”

Meanwhile, NSWCDD scientists and engineers plan to continue the SeaGlide Program they started last year in coordination with Virginia’s Orange County High School and Washington and Lee High School. One teacher from each high school attended the SeaGlide workshop geared toward educators, scientists and engineers held at NSWC Carderock Division in the summer of 2019.

During the workshop, high school educators learned how to use coding to program their microcontrollers; build buoyancy engines while also learning how to balance the forces of buoyancy and gravity; put their glider bodies together using plastic water bottles; and electronic skills.

“The teachers incorporated SeaGlide into their high school physics classes to educate their students about electronics, mechanical design, and physics principles such as buoyancy,” said Jamshaid ‘JD’ Chaudhry, NSWC Dahlgren Division deputy for academic outreach.  “We also provided resources – SeaGlide kits and materials – to the high school teachers to help them kick start their programs.”

Alex highly recommends the program to students for independent study or in a high school classroom.

“The experiences and exposure I received from this top-tier program are second to none,” he said. “I have learned a variety of useful skills and techniques that pertain to the STEM field. If a student has remote interest in STEM, this project doesn’t just tap into that interest but allows you to explore and experiment with so many different possibilities and outcomes. What I personally learned from this experience is to keep an updated logbook restating what has been accomplished in that day of work along with what your goals and to keep an organized work station to help your work efficiency.”