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The inaugural group of graduate students describe their experiences in OCEN 689. | Video: Texas A&M University at Galveston

From ocean exploration to unmanned repairs on offshore oil rigs, the application for underwater robotics is vast.

This summer, Texas A&M University at Galveston offered the inaugural Integrated Ocean Systems – Design and Deployment course (OCEN 689), which challenged ocean engineering graduate students to build their own underwater robots through experiential learning practices.

The course was created by Dr. Paul Mario Koola, professor of practice, and department head Dr. Sharath Girimaji in tandem with the Department of Ocean Engineering’s 30-credit Master of Science in Ocean Engineering degree program.

“Currently, underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROV) are heavily used in subsea work,” Koola said. “Underwater inspection and survey are two other domains. Eventually, renewable-powered autonomous systems will roam our oceans monitoring the health of our planet. We are training our graduates to meet this future demand.

“The feedback we got from industry was that there is a shortage of folks with ocean domain knowledge who can define ocean engineering-related missions and execute them,” he said. “Through this course, we believe our graduates will be better prepared for successful careers by not only knowing general ocean engineering principles but by also having the experience of putting together systems and knowing design choices and their effect on missions.”

In the course, graduate student teams are tasked with identifying a mission statement for their ROV, then designing and building an underwater robot using a Triggerfish SeaMate ROV kit that would fulfill that mission. Additionally, students learn how to operate and deploy a BlueROV to take sonar scans. In addition, this course also teaches students to build realistic simulations of renewable energy devices.

“I've really enjoyed working with my hands, which is not something I've been exposed to in a lot of my other courses,” said Kacey Green. “We're able to design an ROV based on theory and see what will and won't work in fresh and saltwater settings. It's been a great opportunity to take what we've learned in previous courses and apply it in real life.”

Green and her project partner, Sophia Kirschner, designed an ROV they named Yellow Submarine. As described, the lightweight and simple orthogonal, box-framed design was chosen for ease of movement and better controllability. Their design allows for their ROV to move in all six directions while underwater.

Ricardo Torres Jr. and Morgan Humphrey constructed an ROV designed to remove invasive species from the ground and ship hulls. This inspired them to develop a design that could easily move forward and make slow turns. Additionally, where many of their peers had cubical creations, theirs was elongated and boasted a scraper on the end to remove unwanted material.

“Robots and automation are the future,” Torres said. “This course gave us firsthand experience of the challenges that we, as engineers, will have to solve.”

The final team consisted of Julia Gionet-Gonzales, Ashley Mullens and Hayden Smith. Their robot was designed to pick up trash from the ocean. As such, they designed it to be robust and strong with cross beams for added stability.

“Coming from a mechanical background I was excited to finally bring that aspect into ocean engineering and be able to build something to test,” Gionet-Gonzales said. “This course has integrated many aspects I learned from ocean engineering courses into the field. It is one thing to learn in the classroom, but when you can actually go out in the field and experience it, it is more impactful.”