Santa Clara University

SCU Engineering News

A new angle on environmental research

Xander Wroblewski deploys one of the robotic kayaks
Photo: Gregory Emmanuel

For some time now, students in the Robotics Systems Laboratory have been working on controlling a set of automated devices to work together in a cluster. This year, an interdisciplinary senior design team is taking the technology to the next step by creating ANGLER (Autonomous Network for Gradient Location and Environmental Research), a group of robotic kayaks that sense and navigate by physical gradients while transmitting data about the conditions in the water.

“Our challenge has been to develop a prototype that includes an integrated sensor package for measuring water temperature, oxygen content, and salinity to see what the environment has to offer,” said mechanical engineering senior Jake Pfitsch. “This way, we can learn how the runoff from nearby algal farms may be affecting the fishing industry and surrounding environment.”

With three kayaks working in concert, the team can map a wide area of anoxic concentration at one particular moment according to gradients and data tracked by their controls system. “This ability to map a large area and get a snapshot in time is important because with tides and intermittent phenomena, algae can grow relatively quickly,” said Dean Willmert, also a mechanical engineering major.

Two electrical engineering students, Greg Emmanuel and Alvaro Astray, one more mechanical engineer, Xander Wroblewski, and engineering physics major Mike Vlahos are also teammates on the project. “It’s really an interdisciplinary endeavor to design and implement the mechanical, electrical, and controls systems,” said Pfitsch, “and we’re also collaborating with two other universities, Milwaukee School of Engineering and St. Louis University. We have a conference call with them once a week, so we have to communicate clearly and stay on the same page while sticking with our design constraints. With so many different perspectives, it makes the project really interesting.”

Early on, the SCU team sought the advice of experts at MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute). “They pointed out that our sensors were placed too close to the motor, which would cause turbulence and electronic interference,” said Willmert. “It was great to be able to pick the experts’ brains to help save us some trouble.”

Still, as Willmert noted, the students enjoy the challenge of trial and error. “When you have access to engineers who know a lot more than you, finding the balance between doing things on your own as opposed to asking someone who knows how to do it is an experience of its own.”

“We’ve learned new ways of thinking about engineering problems by working on this project all year, for sure,” added Pfitsch; “There are so many factors, you just kind of have to know from your previous experience how to proceed and figure things out.”