Marine Biology Class Teams Up with Navy Engineers on ROV

Upper school Marine Biology students are getting the experience of a lifetime, thanks to a program that pairs Navy engineers with schools to learn more about engineering remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

The partnership came to life when Dr. Frank Thomson was contacted by a colleague who wanted to use his personal pool for a ROV test drive. Due to COVID-19, public pools were closed, and his colleague needed a place to test a ROV.

“I immediately recognized the value of this resource and met with Mr. Arvin Persaud, our Navy STEM outreach liaison,” said Dr. Thompson.

As a part of the partnership, the Navy has provided funding, which includes the tools, equipment, kits and more, for standard and underwater robotics at Norfolk Collegiate. In addition, Navy engineering staff volunteer every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday with Collegiate students interested in robotics.

“Our first unit in Marine Biology involves marine technology, how we use tools and equipment to learn about life in the ocean,” said Dr. Thompson. “I have always talked about remotely operated vehicles, but now, thanks to the Navy, I can show the students how they work and actually have them build one.”

Last week, the class successfully deployed its first prototype ROV which was built by Maggie ’22 and Graham ’22.

“The ROV we built was a standard kit to get us started. It was part of a program called SeaPerch,” said Maggie. “We started by building the frame, where we had to cut pieces of PVC to the correct length, then we constructed our motors and the control box” before putting the pieces together.

When it came time to test drive their ROV, each student took a turn operating it and navigating the obstacle course set up by the Navy volunteers. They also discussed parameters like buoyancy and propulsion to make in-the-field engineering modifications on the prototype so it would operate more effectively. Students also discussed materials, design, function and other aspects of the process of building underwater robots.

“Going to test the ROVS was a very cool experience though, and it was very satisfying to see our little robot go through an underwater obstacle course as we directed it with the control panel we made ourselves,” said Maggie of the experience. 

“The volunteers showing up and demonstrating the most advanced ROV they have showed us the potential in these robots and how much more advanced these robots can become,” said Graham of the experience. “It showed me that our robot was just the tip of the iceberg in the world of ROVs…By completing this process, we were able to learn skills that are imperative for this second version like soldering and waterproofing.”

Students are now working on building a more advanced ROV that may have features such as an underwater camera, robotic arm(s), physical and chemical sensors, and other features proposed by the students.   

“We are planning to add more motors to make it more maneuverable, have a way to collect samples, and of course lights and cameras,” said Maggie. “All this makes this next ROV much more challenging and fun to design and build, and it makes it possible to do research with the robot.” 

They are also approaching it “as if they were engaged in a real-world engineering project, including 'funding proposals,' budget calculations, design discussions and project management, '' said Dr. Thompson. “Students will also have the opportunity after school to get more heavily involved in the building process with supervised use of tools and equipment for assembly, circuitry, and coding.”

“In our marine biology class, we have been talking about many properties of the water to help us understand the organisms and their environments,” said Maggie. “Many of these properties can be measured using ROVs and their equipment; additionally, a ROV with a camera can get up close to an organism's environment so you can examine its behavior.” 

The end goal of this project is to have the students document marine life in local waters with an attached camera and collect specimens with a robotic arm.

“In Marine Biology, we learned a lot about ROVs, AUVs, research vessels and the myriad ways scientists conduct marine research,” said Maggie. “Seeing firsthand how such robots work and serve the scientific community ties right in with what we learned and having our own will allow us to conduct our own research. It’s a fascinating application of the technology, and it is a very interesting and fun way to spend time and learn new skills,” said Maggie.

Graham agreed. “Robotics doesn't have to be your thing to do this. When this opportunity first arose in class, at first, I was unsure whether this was something that I would enjoy, but I decided to try it out…Through this program I got to see practical applications of other subjects like engineering and physics and really enjoyed seeing how they linked together in the culmination of our finished product.”  

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