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US Defense Department Taps Students To Build UUVs to Detect UXO

By Michael DeLorme

Stevens Perseus II vehicle begins its descent to search for UXO.
On June 25, 2013, an ABC affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland, reported that the explosive ordnance disposal team from the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground detonated a World War II bomb off the shore of Assateague Island, Maryland. The Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported four days later that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the beach for two days, turning up more than 100 inert pieces of ordnance (weapons and ammunition).

Then, on June 26, 2013, explosives experts from the Naval Weapons Station Earle in New Jersey detonated what was believed to be a German contact mine found by a local swimmer just off the beach in nearby Bay Head, New Jersey. The NY Daily News reported that a base public affairs officer indicated that the Colts Neck team had recently documented at least six similar incidents along the New Jersey coast, north of Bay Head.

These are only a few examples of what is becoming a more common problem along the U.S. coast: unexploded ordnance (UXO) located by fishermen, swimmers, divers or folks just strolling along the beach.

Whether they were dumped, fired and forgotten, or unearthed by wave-induced erosion is not relevant to the potential for similar incidents and the dangers posed to the civilians and military experts who handle these discoveries. In fact, researchers now estimate at least 31 million pounds of UXO are sitting on the seafloor off the coasts of at least 16 U.S. states.

Solutions to the problem of UXO are dangerous and expensive. Not all sightings lead to the discovery of these devices, which can result in a very costly and disruptive false alarm, leading the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) to consider whether there might be a different way.

Looking to Students
The NAVFAC and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) created Perseus, a government program to design unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). With support from the Applied Research Lab at the Pennsylvania State University, the RRTO enlisted five schools: Stevens Institute of Technology, Florida Atlantic University, Florida Keys Community College, the Georgia Institute of Technology and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to assign teams of undergraduate students to tackle the problem of UXOs. The RRTO sought innovative approaches from students, who were unencumbered by preconceived ideas about how to best solve the problem. Ethan Hayon, Joe Huyett, Don Montemarano, Mark Siembab, Michael Giglia and Brandon Vandegrift made up the team of Stevens undergraduate students who participated in the Perseus program, which challenged the five university teams to build underwater vehicles capable of locating and analyzing inert explosive devices located 40 feet beneath the water's surface.

In the Perseus program, failure due to lack of effort was inexcusable; failure associated with striving to develop something new and challenging was an accepted risk. Further improving the chance for innovation, the teams that focused on designing solutions consisted of undergraduate students, most of whom were studying engineering or technology. The students were predisposed to seek out new knowledge through research without being bound to institutional ideologies.

The complexity of the task required that a successful team consisted of a diverse group of students, representing multiple disciplines. This would lead to a variety of ideas, improving the chances of innovation. Today's students are very comfortable working at or near the forefront of technology, and their relative inexperience meant that they were open-minded about new approaches to solving the problem. An advisor ensured that the students did not hurt themselves, or each other, and kept them moving forward toward innovation.

The fact that the project was for undergraduates did not imply there was an existing solution that would be used to judge the project's effectiveness. As such, Perseus was truly an open-ended project. The problem statement the students received was simple and purposefully generalized: '' assemble an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV), Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) or Unmanned Service Vessel (USV) in a relatively short period of time that is capable of searching for, locating and collecting information on objects that are potentially unexploded ordnance (UXO).' To continue this article please click here.

Michael DeLorme is an adjunct professor and research associate at the Davidson Laboratory at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He has conducted more than 50 marine hydrodynamic experiments on both surface and subsurface vehicles. Other areas of recent research include the application of hydroacoustic techniques for the detection, classification and tracking of nonemitting small vessels, the implementation of UUVs for port and maritime security and environmental assessment and path planning of a UUV through a complex estuary.

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