NEWPORT, R.I. —
They had 15 minutes. Just 15 minutes to navigate the obstacle course with their handmade, remote-controlled vehicles. Underwater. In the near dark. Racing against their peers for maximum points.
Many adults would be unable to do such intense maneuvering, but these four teams of five high school students rallied around each other during the Undersea Technology Apprentice Program (UTAP) Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) Robotics Competition held July 11 at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport.
The event was the culmination of one of three three-week paid internship programs in underwater robotics sponsored by Division Newport’s Educational Outreach Program. These Rhode Island and Massachusetts teens were learning about science, underwater electronics and the inevitable environmental and social circumstances that come their way. The competition was the final test of their coaching and practice.
“This is a real-world experience,” Candida Desjardins, head of the Educational Outreach Program said. “Hopefully they learn to tackle a problem, look at all the things that could affect what they’re trying to do and appreciate the whole picture.”
Given the task, a $60 budget, some tools and a three-week deadline, the teams designed and constructed small robots attached by a long tether to their remote control. Complete with a headlight and video camera, as well as an advanced drive system for propulsion and the program’s unique Raspberry Pi single board computer, the vehicles’ job was to open an underwater hatch and collect weights at the bottom of a 20-foot torpedo-testing tank.
The students needed to drive the UUV there under limited visibility and special environmental factors, like the tank’s kelp forest and bubble screen, which simulated real-life obstacles that they had to navigate. Team members exchanged roles during their 15-minute exercise, so each had a chance to drive, manage the tether and verbalize where the vehicle was in the tank in relation to its target.
“A lot of these students don’t have the ability to think outside the box, and what they also don’t have is complete instruction from us,” Desjardins said. “They’re often told in school to ‘Do A, then B, then C.’ We want them to understand the whole problem, think for themselves and prepare for the worst.”
UTAP was developed to provide an opportunity for up to 20 high school students to study part time for three weeks during the summer alongside Division Newport scientists and engineers. In the process, students gain valuable insights by working with advanced technology while developing real-world applications of science and math lessons learned at school.
Coach and lead mentor John DiCecco, a Division Newport engineer in the Undersea Weapons, Vehicles and Defensive Systems Department, said rather than providing specific technical direction, the program gives students the tools to learn so they figure things out on their own. His 58-page manual helps get them started, but he doesn’t tell them what to do, how to do it or even offer suggestions to improve their ideas.
“This is cutting edge. These are the tools that professional engineers are using. For these students to be exposed to this is a big thing,” DiCecco said. “A huge factor is social engineering. They’re paired with four other kids who they don’t know, an operating system they aren’t familiar with, are given very little guidance, and they have to find a way forward.”
Former UTAP participant Zach Young, who is currently an intern working for Division Newport’s Chief Technology Officer, knows just how hard that is. His firsthand experience helped him define his professional goals once he graduates from University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2020.
“This is unique because it’s so hands-on, unlike school where you’re given information to take an exam. But here, this is the exam. It’s a better way to learn,” Young said, while monitoring the students’ progress in the competition tank. “My end goal is medical technology, and this experience will help me because I will have a better understanding of engineering and material science outside the classroom.”
It was an appealing prospect for Katherine Pappas, a senior at New Bedford High School in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Aditi Mehta, a sophomore at Mount Hope High School in Bristol, Rhode Island. Their teams tied for first place in the competition, and they were all business as they analyzed their design, performance and mistakes.
“We worked really well as a team,” Pappas said. “I’m into environmental engineering so I wanted to see what it’s all about. This was very helpful.”
Mehta agreed that this was a different experience than she has in the classroom.
“This was a nice gateway to explore different options,” Mehta said. “This is not stuff we’ll learn in school.”
With one more day in the summer program, the students left to download their data and evaluate their overall performance in the hot wash debrief session. DiCecco said these students should be immensely proud of themselves.
“These vehicles didn’t exist before. Each one is unique and works differently than anything else in the world. There is no other vehicle like it,” he said. “Being able to do this with technology you’re unfamiliar with, people you’re unfamiliar with, in two and a half weeks, is profoundly satisfying.”
UTAP is held annually at NUWC Division Newport, and an announcement for applications is posted on the command’s external website in February. For more information, click here.
NUWC Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.
Currently celebrating its 150th anniversary, NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Captain Michael Coughlin, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.