Research Spotlight: Underwater drone debuts at 25th annual Steinmetz Symposium

Concordiensis | John Kodera

Keanu Rodriguez ’16, Samuel Martin ’15 and John Volpe ’15 recently showcased their engineering display of an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) at the 25th Annual Steinmetz Symposium.

Their project was intended for the purpose of exploring the underwater depths of Ballston Lake. Engineering Professor William Keat supervised the team’s project.

The team was inspired to design an underwater drone to explore Ballston Lake after hearing a local legend that a Ford Model T had rolled into the bottom of the lake a century ago.

Volpe explained that this turn-of-the-century legend varied quite a bit with popular rumour believing that moonshiners ditched their car in the lake in an attempt to run away from police and Prohibition agents.

This claim has been substantiated in recent years after a sonar mapping survey conducted by the Geology Department tracked down potential locations of what seemed to be the long-lost Ford vehicle that had been popularized by legend.

Martin said that the team was excited at the prospect of designing a submarine that could go down to the depths and look for things, as that presented a “fun challenge.”

According to Martin, the design of an underwater vehicle to explore the depths of Ballston Lake has been a regular project for almost a decade.

Every year, a group has undertaken this project in the hopes of creating a better iteration.

As past UUV’s have experienced problems with horizontal and vertical maneuverability, this year, the team sought to learn from previous mistakes and address both preexisting problems and anticipated problems foreseen during the design phase.

Past UUV’s had barely enough thrust and forward propulsion to move a little bit of water around and the cables necessary for command and control put too much drag on the design and compensated for maneuverability, according to Volpe and Martin.

This year’s iteration, which represented a complete redesign, contrasted from previous years in three major ways: size, thrust and aerodynamism.

Bilge pumps used by prior groups were also replaced by two electric boat motors which will provide much more forward propulsion.

This year’s iteration of the UUV had five times the thrust, six times the power, and also saw a more advanced ballast tank system as compared to that of last year’s.

The ballast tank is a central component of any submarine.

Filling up the tank creates less buoyancy, enabling the submarine to go down, and similarly, pushing out the water from the tank fills it with air, which enables the submarine to float up again.

The valves and pump control the intake and outtake of water from the ballast tank, and hoses control whether air is being pushed in or not, all of which is critical for controlling the vertical motion of the submarine.

The team also completely redesigned the power supply and command system, both of which contributed to a better and more maneuverable model.

The decision to switch to an onboard power supply system from an exterior power supply obviated the need for big cables attached to bulky tethers, which had been the norm in prior iterations of the UUV.

This change allowed for a smaller template and enhanced maneuverability.

One of the other major goals of this year’s iteration was enhanced flexibility, by allowing operators to reach the internal UUV power system without having to tamper with seals or joints. Sliding drawers enable easy access to the internal structure.

The final design also included an external structure built to withstand test depth pressures of 120 feet.

Volpe expressed that their goal would be “to close the final iteration that would enable it to finally go down there, and find what we have hoped to look for.”

Rodriguez indicated that this goal was imminently achievable with successful testing and final additions installed.

Rodriguez expressed, “by next week, we hope to have this water tested just to see if there are any major leaks, and if that works and everything goes well, we hope to add a camera to the front, attach lights because the lake is really murky, and see what we can find down there.”

Rodriguez anticipates that the team will try another final test at the end of the year.


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