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The ocean covers 73 percent of the earth and only 5 percent of it has been explored. One senior design team is trying to change this.

Engineering senior Sawyer Brooks attributes the lack of exploration to the extremely high costs of sending out ships, crews and scientists to collect data from the ocean. “Our goal is to reduce costs by creating solar powered boats to explore more of the ocean,” Brooks said. “It will help scientists to understand biodiversity weather patterns [and] oil companies to deter oil leaks and detect pollutants in the water.”

Brooks and Engineering senior Cristina Sorice came up with the idea last summer and formally began working on it in late September as a part of their senior design project, but they always envisioned it growing into something more long term. The team has since been selected to participate in the Cornell Cup USA, a competition sponsored by Intel which challenges student teams to develop innovative embedded technologies. Sorice, Brooks and seniors Sebastian Schloesser and Emily Samuelson will compete against 35 other teams at Disney World on May 1.

The team will also present their project at senior design day on Monday, April 21. All engineering seniors complete a capstone project which allows them to put skills learned in the classroom to work. They then compete in departmental and school-wide competitions.

The prototype began as a small wooden boat that they first tested in Pottruck’s swimming pool. Over the course of several months, the prototype developed to include motors and a metal frame. The final prototype — called SPARC, or Solar Powered Aquatic Research Craft — includes a solar panel mounted on top of the boat, a 25-pound battery and a wench that can be lowered to collect data.

The team tests the boat frequently on the Schuylkill River. One of their earliest concerns was to ensure that the boat was buoyant and would not tip over in rough waters because capsizing would cause the solar powered boat to lose power, Sorice said. The current boat also has GPS navigation capabilities so that it can navigate the river and in the future, the ocean as well.

Brooks explained that there are other robotic solutions to the lack of extensive ocean research. While other systems are advanced, they rent for over $300,000 for six months. Brooks and his team’s design is far more affordable. They are hoping to sell their boats one day for about $5,000 to $10,000. “With that amount of cost saving, research labs can purchase thousands of these boats and have an entire fleet traveling the ocean, monitoring pollution and oil,” he said. “Our boat offers significant cost improvements.”

The team has gotten a lot of positive feedback from people within and outside of the University. “We’ve spoken to a lot of people — from engineers, oil companies and researchers and the general consensus is that it’s a good product,” said Sorice.

Developing the boat will continue long after the competition as the team works to make it marketable. “We’re testing and refining and giving the boat the ability to be commercially available to companies,” Sameulson said. “In the future, I could see a fleet of them being hired out by companies or the government to monitor water quality.”

The students also had the support of their advisor Bruce Kothmann and several faculty members. Kothmann “is an amazing advisor. He has so much knowledge in field of engineering and he calms our fears and anxieties,” Samuelson said. “The whole department as a whole has been helpful.”

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