Hi–tech connection:
NU engineers involved in NASA projects © Sept. 21, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

CAD drawing of the top-rear section of the AUV.

Courtesy of the David Crawford School of Engineering A CAD drawing displaying the top, rear section of the autonomous underwater vehicle that Norwich students will take to San Diego next summer.

Working with NASA is not something that many college students envision , even after they graduate. Fortunately for a few lucky Norwich engineering students, they’ll get a taste before graduation day arrives through their involvement in two NASA–related projects.

This year, a group of 10 senior engineering students is working to create an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to send to an international competition in San Diego next summer. Although NASA isn’t directly affiliated with the project, they have played a part in the funding for the students use in building the submersible. Another group of four engineering students is working with NASA and the University of Vermont (UVM) to create a facility to test ways to reduce the impact of heat on space vehicles upon re–entrance into the atmosphere. Although NASA has a vested interest in both groups, the seniors are also getting senior project credit for their participation.

“The students will be exposed to professionals in the course of doing this project that they don’t usually get exposure to,” Prof. of Electrical Enginnering Ron Lessard said of the AUV competition. “They will also get exposure to cutting–edge technology that they don’t usually get in the classroom.”

The students building the AUV have already started meeting together in preparation for building the vehicle. The international competition is sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVI), which will not release the requirements for the competition until May, despite the competition’s scheduled date of mid-July. Nonetheless, the Norwich team will be far along in their process by then.

Last spring, the Institute of Electronic and Electric Engineers Robotics club came up with the idea of participating in the competition. Preparation for the project began in May when team captains Jon Seward and Ryan Wood began their summer research fellowships. Seward noted that the preliminary work was an effort “…to know what we are doing. We looked at all the past competitions to see how they have changed over the years, and have made predictions on what will happen in 2008.”

Although this will be Norwich’s maiden voyage into the AUV competitive world, facing off against 20 to 30 teams from schools all over the nation has not shaken the confidence of Norwich’s captains. “This will put Norwich on the map for the whole field of robotics,” Seward said.

Two projects dealing with state of the art NASA projects at Norwich are pretty exciting. This will establish us as a place they will continue to fund if we have a good showing.

~ Prof. Danner Friend

Are they at a disadvantage? Not according to Wood. “Some schools have been competing in this every year for the ten years that it has been happening,” noted Wood. “But every four years it is a new group of engineers. A lot of people will be in the same boat.”

The competition represents the opportunity for students to experience some of the work they might be doing in the real world. Acccording to information on the sponsoring organization’s website, “In 1990, AUVSI realized the need to introduce future generations of engineers, scientists and operators to unmanned systems. To that end, AUVSI has created four different Competitions to challenge students to design, build and deploy air, ground and underwater autonomous unmanned systems.”

Funding for the project comes not only from NASA, which donated $2,500 towards the summer research fellowships, but also National Instruments, Electronic Warfare Associates, and Ocean Server. The students will be contacting potential donors throughout the year and are applying for another NASA grant.

In separate work spaces of Norwich’s David Crawford School of Engineering, students Joel Hammen, Alex Broulidakis, Erin Chaffee, and Jason Zlogar will be working in collaboration with UVM personnel on a separate NASA project. Prof. Danner Friend, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Norwich, said the students will be, “…addressing the aerodynamic, material, and structural issues related to the high temperatures experienced by space vehicles re-entering Earth’s atmosphere as well as other planets.”

More specifically, the students will be involved in the design and creation of a device that will hold test material samples that will be subjected to extremely high temperatures. The testing will occur in a plasma torch facility at UVM that the students are creating to simulate the high–temperature environment that space vehicles experience upon re-entry.

“The challenge to the students will be to design a robust, high–temperature resistant, water–cooled holder that is easy to manufacture and assemble,” Friend said. “The Norwich students will be working in parallel with faculty and graduate students at UVM so that testing of materials will begin in early 2008.”

The relationship between NASA and Norwich is relatively new. “Mainly our senior projects have had funding through local companies,” Friend said. “Two projects dealing with state-of-the-art NASA projects at Norwich are pretty exciting. This will establish us as a place they will continue to fund if we have a good showing.”

Friend went on to say that Norwich’s success would not only benefit the school, but the students as well. “Hopefully, we will feed people into the field. I can foresee students moving into the aerospace industry if not NASA specifically.”

And if the students working on the AUV have anything to do with it, Norwich will have no trouble finding success. “We’re a small team, we’ve never been there before, and we’re going to win,” Seward said.