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NEWS | Dec. 16, 2021

NSWCPD Supports STEM Program Building Underwater Robots at Widener University

By Gary Ell

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) has partnered with Widener University in Chester, Pa. to support a unique Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program where Robotics Engineering (RE) undergraduate students are developing an autonomous underwater vehicle to participate in the RoboNation's RoboSub Competition. Five senior robotics engineering students presented their final designs during a project review briefing at Widener on Dec. 1, 2021.

The NSWCPD STEM Outreach Program is a sponsor to the Widener RE senior project and the Widener RE Robotics Club.

“Programs like this do three things for NSWCPD. First, they fill a void that we’ve had since the inception of the SeaPerch program over a decade ago by providing a path for students to explore naval robotics from middle school through college. Next, they provide a means of attracting talent and provide a pipeline for students to try out naval engineering in a collegiate setting before deciding to pursue an internship or career with the Department of the Navy. Finally, they provide a means to train students in numerous valuable, fast-growing technical areas of interest to NSWCPD such as unmanned surface and undersea vehicles, sensing and perception, and artificial intelligence,” said NSWCPD’s STEM Outreach Program Manager Tristan Wolfe, who participated in the project review, adding that these three things lay the foundation for NSWCPD to maintain its distinction as a leader in the area of next generation shipboard machinery systems.

“The Widener University Robotics Engineering (RE) program started in fall 2018. It is the first, and so far, the only undergraduate RE program in the region, and among a few pioneering institutions offering this type of program nationwide. The program empowers students with fundamental knowledge and skills in inventing, designing, research, developing, testing, and servicing robotic and automation systems,” said Associate Professor and Chair of Widener University’s Department of Robotics Engineering Dr. Xiaomu Song.

He continued, “The Widener Robotics Club, an active student organization, started at the same time as the inauguration of the Widener RE program. Most students in the Club are from the RE program. I have been serving as the faculty advisor for the Club. The students in the club have been working on different projects that are targeted for different competitions, such as VexU (college level Vex competition) and National Robotics League (NRL)’s combat robot competition.”

“Because of the support from the NSWCPD STEM Outreach Program, the RE program and club have an excellent opportunity to expand the students’ experience by learning to design and build an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and participating in RoboNation’s RoboSub competition,” Song added.

“It is a great project for the students and could have practical implications for the Navy. The competition is to build an autonomous robot submarine that will maneuver under water and avoid obstacles,” said Bruce Weinberg, an electrical engineer in NSWCPD’s Cyber Secure Machinery Control Systems & Network Department, who is currently serving as the U.S. Navy and industry advisor to this unique STEM initiative.

“They have to come up with three designs, which are under evaluation,” Weinberg added, noting that the team is currently in the design phase.

Weinberg explained that the criteria for which the submarine will be built comes from an organization called RoboNation, which is focused on providing a pathway for hands-on educational experiences that empower students to create innovative solutions to global challenges. RoboNation organizes and defines a competition for which the STEM students must tackle fundamental challenges in the design, build, and testing of a fully autonomous vehicle. The RoboSub competition was established to generate, cultivate, and enhance a community of innovators capable of substantive contributions to the AUV domain.

“With the new school year (2021-22), Widener University, in seeing the value of STEM Robotics, expanded the Club activities. In addition, the Engineering Department has defined the creation of the autonomous submarine as a senior design project for the senior engineering students involved, said Song”

Song explained that approximately 12 students in the Club initialized the design and conducted extensive research on AUVs.

“When the first group of RE seniors were ready to work on their senior projects in this (2021-22) academic year, a senior project team was formed in early August 2021 to dedicate to the project,” he said. “So far, the team has finished the design of the AUV body, procured part of sensors and microprocessors, and tested the data acquisition code for these sensors.”

Fourth-year robotics engineering students Nicholas Lubeck, Jacob Thomas, Natalie Ralston, Mary Flaherty, and Michael Knawby presented their final designs to Wolfe and Weinberg at the Widener campus in early December 2021.

“Because of the scale of the project during this academic year, we are only focusing on a base submarine that will traverse underwater and avoid obstacles that will be built upon by a future team leading to the eventual competition,” said Lubeck, who serves as the project team lead.

“The team will continue to finish all design in early spring 2022, and build and test the AUV in the university’s pool. It is expected that the AUV has all necessary functions needed for the competition, and the design is also expandable to include new functions in the future,” Song said.