Santa Clara University


RETINA: A Vision for Education in Ocean Science and Technology

Student-designed autonomous surface craft

For the past ten years, Santa Clara University has participated in a world-class technology development program known as RETINA: Robotic Exploration Technologies in Astrobiology. Christopher Kitts, director of the School of Engineering’s Robotics Systems Laboratory, who heads SCU’s involvement with the program, recently received a one-year subcontract award from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to continue this work.

“What is interesting about RETINA,” said Kitts, “is that it brings together scientists, students, and faculty from different institutions and from across disciplines to focus on creating novel robotic platforms, integrate advanced sensing systems, and prototype innovative mission control techniques in order to advance the mission of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in exploring Earth and other worlds.”  All of this is accomplished under the auspices of a unique educational program in which undergraduate and graduate students work in interdisciplinary design teams to prototype high-risk technologies and systems in low-cost ways, fielding these systems to perform high-quality, peer-reviewed science and technology validation missions. The program has had many successes in fostering such teams and in achieving results with systems that operate on the land, in the sea, in the air, and in space. “Through this collaboration, our engineering students have been motivated to develop highly capable robotic systems that are directly relevant to the needs of the ocean science community,” said Kitts.

Through RETINA-sponsored activities, numerous students have been afforded unique opportunities to gain useful real-world skills. Nearly one hundred students (spread over several years), including some in non-engineering majors, have participated in the year-long marine robotics senior design project. A number of students have completed independent research studies and the scope of their work has resulted in 34 scientific papers or posters. Two student-led project designs are currently being reviewed for patents, and three students have been given special awards by the Marine Technology Society.

With the recent funding, RETINA activities will be expanded to field several highly capable instruments and robotic systems that will be made available to the astrobiology research and educational communities for conducting field research and outreach. In conducting these efforts, student involvement will be expanded to include contributions from new university partners.  In addition, the program will enhance and increase its K-12 educational and outreach activities.

More on RETINA.