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Robotics Students Go "North to Alaska"

Paul Mahacek and Giovanni Minelli
Mahacek (left) and Minelli with their ROVs.



Ever been to a kelp-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of a $12.5 million marine laboratory? A group of SCU robotics students had just that experience this summer when they traveled to Kasitsna Bay, Alaska, to install a weather station and provide an outreach activity for 100 guests.

The Kasitsna Bay Laboratory, owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated in partnership with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF), is a marine research and teaching laboratory that welcomes approved researchers from academic and government institutions. About three years ago, NOAA and UAF began conversations with Christopher Kitts, director of SCU’s Robotics Laboratory, and Bill Kirkwood, an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering who is also the Associate Director of Engineering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. After a site survey, Kitts and Kirkwood initiated the development of a technology roadmap for supporting marine research, which led to a field trip this past summer by mechanical engineering graduate students Paul Mahacek and Giovanni Minelli.

But before the weather station could be installed, it first had to be built and tested here in Santa Clara’s robotics lab. Ognjen “Ogi” Petrovic (B.S. Computer Engineering, M.S. Mechanical Engineering) integrated and configured various software tools to fit the lab’s requirements. The result is a device that includes a live webcam, anemometer, pyrometer, leaf moisture sensor, rain gauge tipping bucket, plus the requisite barometer and thermometer. “This is the only piece of weather equipment on Kasitsna Bay,” Petrovic noted. “As the only data point on this side of the inlet, the information is of vital interest to locals and scientists alike, and will contribute to NOAA’s national database.” The weather station is supported and maintained remotely by SCU students.

After installing the station, Mahacek and Minelli contributed to the festivities by helping celebrants build their own robotic Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) for oceanic exploration using pre-made motors, pumps, and PVC pipe. Next summer, the team plans to bring their Autonomous Surface Vessel (ASV) to map the bathymetry of this most diverse marine ecosystem. Mechanical engineering student Todd Berk recently worked with Kitts and Kirkwood to test the ASV and the sonar system in the Moss Landing harbor; Petrovic and Mahacek are currently working on the control system for the boat’s autonomous navigation and for the multibeam sonar that will be used. “NOAA has large vessels for deep water exploration, but our smaller ASV is perfect for investigating the near-coastal waterways that are too shallow for other craft,” said Mahacek.

Minelli is enthusiastic about his work in the robotics lab: “Where else can you work on underwater robots and satellites in the same day? There are so many integrated projects; whatever opportunity you want to pursue, it’s happening right here.”

Read more about the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory and SCU’s robotics lab: