UCSD Students Receive $11,701 Grant to Build Autonomous Underwater Vehicles

(Connor Gorry / The Triton)

Yonder Deep, an undergraduate student organization at UC San Diego, was awarded a full budget of $11,701 by the Marine Sciences Academic Senate Resource Committee to create four autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) on Feb. 8.   

Yonder Deep’s mission, according to its website, is “to empower students to make tangible differences in research, by inspiring lifelong learning through underwater robotics.” The team’s current project is in collaboration with Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor Grant Deane. The project aims to build low-cost disposable underwater robots to research hazardous conditions without risking expensive equipment. The team hopes that by using only commercially available parts and 3-D printers, they can lower the barrier to research dangerous environments for researchers everywhere.

“This project began early November with the idea that undergraduates of all disciplines should have the opportunity to impact the world at large with their passions,” said Muir College second year and Yonder Deep Director Christian Conaway in an email interview with The Triton. “We were frustrated that the theory we learned in our classes was never applied fully to projects that mattered. We wanted to show that undergraduates can also impact fields of research.”

The Marine Sciences Research Grant Committee met on February 8, 2018 to consider Yonder Deep’s application as part of the Winter 2018 grant solicitation, according to an email response from the committee to Conaway. “The proposal to design and deploy such low-cost, ‘expendable’ AUVs is exciting with important scientific potential (e.g., data collection in high-risk environments),” the email stated. “If at all possible, the committee encourages you and your team to conduct additional field trials prior to final testing under the ice.”

“The award will be used solely for the development and design of four AUVs by June this year,” Conaway said. The estimated budget outlined in the grant proposal includes a lot of electrical components, and most notably many 3-D printed filaments, which keep the project idea novel and the cost lower. By printing hulls for the robots, the team reduces costs in metal machining and resource allocation.

As suggested by the committee, the team has planned several offshore deployments for April and May to test and analyze the AUV’s performance in the field and will continue to test every component from its prototype stage to its final iteration.

The team’s first underwater deployment will be in June. The robots will be shipped to the Hansbreen Glacier in Spitsbergen, Norway to complete multiple deployments at four glacial fronts. The AUVs are supposed to travel through the frigid arctic waters, reach the front of the glacier, and then vertically profile with an array of microphones called hydrophones to measure the ambient noise generated by the glaciers. The data collected will be processed by scientists in Norway and used to calculate glacial density and melting rates.  

“Our first deployment is both exciting and terrifying,” said Conaway, noting the unpredictable nature of Arctic conditions such as air temperature, falling and floating ice, shipping lanes, and polar bears. “As long as we accomplish something greater than any one of us could have done individually, we will have succeeded in my book.”

Cindy Zhan is a staff writer at The Triton.