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NEWS | Aug. 31, 2021

Carderock Interns Participate in Navy's First Soft Robotics STEM Initiative

By Courtney Jones, NSWC Carderock Division Public Affairs

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division high school interns completed a summer program assignment to learn about, evaluate and improve SeaJelly, a free-swimming biomimetic underwater robot. This project was one of six projects that high school interns worked on this summer, as participants in the virtual Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (SEAP), and was sponsored by the command and the Office of Naval Research.

SeaJelly is Carderock’s newest homegrown science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educational platform, created by Jennifer Nunes, a mechanical engineer in Carderock’s Maritime Systems Hydromechanics Branch. It was designed for high school students to learn about fabrication, mechanical design, underwater electronics, autonomous programming and robot development.

The original concept came from Nunes’ master’s thesis at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where she earned her degree in mechanical engineering. Her original research prototype, “JenniFish,” focused on soft robotics production and characterization control algorithms. JenniFish was used as the foundation for SeaJelly, tailoring it towards a hands-on STEM initiative suitable for high-schools students.

The SeaJelly platform serves as a starter kit to build your own underwater robot, and encourages students to identify how the robot can be used in the real world, including how to modify and improve the robot for specific purposes.

This summer, SEAP interns were sent a fully built SeaJelly robot at the beginning of their internship. Nunes acted as their mentor throughout the summer. She provided a project guide offering an in-depth overview of the robots, whose soft, silicone actuators mimic the movement of a jellyfish underwater. The guide explained to the students the mechanics, technology and operation of the SeaJelly robots. The interns also received a base code that didn't have all its functionality. They determined how to modify it by either adding extra sensors or making the sensors' feedback more beneficial to the system.

This summer’s project wasn't so much about building the devices, but rather about learning new concepts, gaining hands-on experience and encouraging creativity. The interns ran their own experimental testing, made prototype modifications and implemented new controls —all virtually.

While this summer’s SEAP internship was completed remotely, the high school students did have the chance to visit Carderock’s West Bethesda base and test their robots in person on August 4.

"The focus of today is getting it in the water and saying, 'Ok, if I put pool noodles up here and I do magnets on the bottom, does it work?'” Nunes said.

The ultimate goal for the in-person experiment was to test the robots while looking into ballast conditions and how they affect the vehicles' dynamics and maneuverability. Since the students weren’t able to make their own SeaJelly, Nunes also used the in-person visit to demonstrate how the silicone pieces are made.

"Soft robotics, in general, is a growing field, and we're seeing some really cool applications,” Nunes said. “I think that you could do some modifications on the platform to make changes. There are a variety of different things it could be used for — potentially water quality monitoring. Certainly, right now, it is hands-on learning.”

Nunes said she enjoyed working with the students on the assignment.

"It's been kind of fun and creative in the fact that I didn't necessarily prescribe exactly what they had to do, so there's no answer key, which is fine. But also, they got to really pursue what interested them," she said.

Moving forward, Nunes and Carderock’s STEM and Outreach Program Director, Charlotte George (Code 00T), will take feedback collected from the interns to improve the SeaJelly project. Soft robotics technology is an emerging field, and the SeaJelly platform is modifiable for practical, real-world settings.

"Robotics is a common theme in Naval STEM. I think that SeaJelly is unique because it incorporates a lot of really cool hands-on fabrication techniques that some of our other STEM programs don't touch," George said. "SeaJelly is a fun and engaging way for students to build a novel underwater robot, and identify creative real-world applications.”