Natick researchers mentor high school robotics team
June 11, 2014
- Army researchers emphasized the need for students to work collaboratively.
NATICK, Mass. (June 11, 2014) -- When the Natick High School robotics team was approached by the town's fire department in March 2012 to develop a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that could assist in search and rescue dives, they first turned to the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center for technical expertise and guidance on their project.
Two years later, Natick InvenTeam leaders Katelyn Sweeney, 17, and Olivia Van Amsterdam, 16, found themselves presenting their team's work to President Obama at the fourth annual White House Science Fair.
InvenTeams are comprised of high school students, teachers and mentors that seek to invent technological solutions to real-world problems in their communities.
"In our meetings with firefighters, we kept hearing about how dangerous ice-diving was," said Sweeney, a senior who will attend MIT this fall. "So we decided we wanted to try to tackle that."
Armed with a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT Program, to which they were selected as one of 16 teams nationwide, students set to work on an underwater vehicle that can assist firefighters searching for people or objects trapped under the ice.
With an initial scale model made from Legos, the team continued to refine their prototype with technical guidance from NSRDEC scientists and engineers.
"They made that small prototype turn into a reality," said Van Amsterdam of the NSRDEC mentors. "They asked a lot of questions and if we didn't have their input during the brainstorming phase, we would've gone through prototype after prototype after prototype."
"It was actually excellent that we failed so many times," said Van Amsterdam, a junior, who also serves as the technical lead for the team. "Fail early and fail often is what (Natick High School robotics teacher) Mr. (Douglas) Scott always says, and that was an important part of the process."
"With a team, it is easy to get either completely polarized or stuck on a single idea," said Sweeney. "Everybody had a different perspective on how to make the machine work, so we had to learn how to combine them to make something that was better than any singular idea."
In addition to providing technical assessments during the mentoring sessions, NSRDEC researchers also emphasized the need for students to work collaboratively.
"It is important to respect each other's thoughts and ideas," said Gary Proulx, an engineer with NSRDEC's Prototype Shop who was one of the mentors. "Often the end result is a hybrid of different ideas."
The end result is a two-part design that uses a tread-wheeled ROV to traverse the ice to the point-of-entry hole, where an embedded crane then lowers a smaller, amphibious ROV equipped with an underwater camera system into the water. The submersible vehicle then searches beneath the water for the victim, ideally locating and latching on to its target for the rescue diver to retrieve.
The ROV, currently under patent review with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, weighs approximately 109 pounds - significantly lighter than a firefighter who would have to cross the ice to the point-of-entry hole.
"First and foremost, this is a device that is intended to scan an environment before a human has to go into it," said Sweeney. "So it could potentially be used in any application where that is necessary."
The goal is to not only assist firefighters in their search efforts, but to keep them as safe as possible while doing it -- a familiar end state for NSRDEC scientists and engineers who work daily to ensure the protection and survivability of Soldiers in harm's way.
The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.