MIT Lincoln Laboratory challenges students to power an autonomous undersea vehicle

by Alexandra Orlov

It was sink or swim for a group of 25 junior and senior MIT engineering students who ultimately succeeded in designing and constructing a long-endurance power system for an autonomous undersea vehicle (AUV). Mentored by Dr. Nicholas Pulsone of the Advanced Sensor Techniques Group and six other Lincoln Laboratory staff members, the undergraduates participated in a two-semester research project taught by Professor Doug Hart of the Mechanical Engineering Department. The course project, proposed by the Laboratory engineers, culminated in a presentation at Lincoln Laboratory on 5 June.

Students from MIT who developed a power system for an AUV were at Lincoln Lab to present their invention. MIT students from the mechanical engineering course that took on a Lincoln Laboratory challenge to build a power source for an AUV presented their prototype at the Laboratory in June. Professor Doug Hart is on the far left, and Lincoln Laboratory technical staff member Nicholas Pulsone is on the far right.

During the fall 2011 semester, Pulsone, along with Drs. Paul Calamia, Laurel Reilly-Keyes, Chris Lloyd, and Joe Edwards of the Advanced Sensor Techniques Group and John Ingwersen and Rebecca Busacker of the Mechanical Engineering Group, guided students during the concept development phases of the project. The students designed an engine that allows an AUV to stay submerged for 30 days, ten times longer than commercially available battery-powered AUVs. Greater endurance increases flexibility for extended missions that explore undersea environments. In the center of the cigar-shaped, 12-foot-long AUV, an internal combustion engine system recharges batteries while the AUV is in slight-to-moderate-sea state conditions. A system pumps in seawater to keep the vehicle buoyant after fuel is burned.

During the construction phase of the course in the spring, the students developed a prototype that exploits the energy released when aluminum reacts with water. Pulsone said of the MIT students, "They’ve got an open mind, great ideas, and a lot of enthusiasm." He noted that during construction one student even hand-wound a generator because the ordered part did not fit the team's requirements. Pulsone anticipates that next year's group of students will use this prototype in another design project.

Posted October 2012

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