Sunday, December 8, 2013

Three Florida Keys Community College students can rest a little easier now following an intense week marking the culmination of a two-semester research, design and building challenge called Perseus.

The program, sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Rapid Reaction Technology Office, brought undergraduate student teams from four universities to FKCC's Key West campus for the second year running.

Their mission: to create an underwater vehicle capable of locating and analyzing simulated explosives submerged 40 feet beneath the water's surface, in the college's dive lagoon, in a recently held demonstration.

The objective of Perseus is to determine whether a party with modest resources and, in a relatively short period of time, could assemble an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV), Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) capable of conducting a specified mission.

It also provides a venue for students to demonstrate their multidisciplinary science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.

At first, the FKCC team seemed at a relative disadvantage -- consisting of only three freshmen and sophomores in the non-engineering disciplines of computer science, marine environmental technology, and diving.

The other teams were larger and comprised juniors and seniors majoring in fields such as electrical, mechanical and ocean engineering from larger universities -- specifically, Florida Atlantic University, Georgia Tech, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Stevens Institute of Technology.

For many of those students, Perseus was their capstone senior project.

Nevertheless, the FKCC team was confident in their recently reworked creation dubbed the "Hammerhead."

They initially designed a submersible device, but waterproofing, buoyancy control and engineering agile navigation presented many challenges -- as many of the teams experienced.

"We abandoned that concept about two weeks ago and went with the wind," said FKCC diving student Justin Gabbard. The team cleverly opted for a simpler surface-skimming design with above- and below-water components.

"The upper section provides propulsion, geospatial information, altitude placement," explained Gabbard. "The lower section combines high- and low-definition video with imaging sonar that provides target identification."

The device is steered via a wireless navigation system from a laptop computer, which also displays live images and location data. Upon discovery of an object, the students can direct the "Hammerhead" to descend its lower unit for closer investigation and analysis.

After three days of final tweaks, repairs and practice at FKCC, it was time for the student teams to show off their unique devices. On the day of the demonstration, each team was allotted 45 minutes to locate simulated unexploded ordinance (UXOs) of various shapes and sizes that were strewn throughout the college's dive lagoon by the Navy's Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit.

Ultimately, the FKCC team located three UXOs during the exercise. Only one other team, from Stevens Institute of Technology, was able to complete the same feat.

Gabbard praised his Perseus teammates, Ricardo Castro Perez and Jarrett Clark, for their success. "It was a team effort. Our programmer Ricardo is the genius; he programmed it. Jarrett and I built it, wired it and sunk it."

Each earned four college credits for their participation.

"While this activity certainly has a cool factor, it requires the students to put theory into practice by applying advanced technologies learned in STEM programs," said FKCC President Jonathan Gueverra. "The unique devices have applications in many sectors and industries. They also reflect of the quality of education at FKCC as well as the other colleges with which we are collaboratively working."

The Perseus demonstrations, associated presentations and reports will provide Department of Defense and related stakeholders insight into a number of rapidly evolving technical areas of interest through the innovation of America's next generation of engineers and scientists.