Research, Scholarship and Creative Achievement at UTSA

Focus on Unmanned Underwater Vessels

UTSA’s participation in the Naval Engineering Education Center Consortium

Studying the topography of polar undersea ice and programming drone-like vehicles to better navigate and communicate under water are just samples of the research projects planned as part of a new program designed to attract more students who will pursue higher education and careers in the specialized field of naval engineering.

UTSA is one of 15 universities belonging to the Naval Engineering Education Center Consortium organized in 2010. NEEC is first and foremost an educational program intended to address the shortage of engineers trained to work with the U.S. Navy, says Brent Nowak, associate professor of mechanical engineering and principal investigator for NEEC at UTSA. “There is a great need, and there will be for decades to come. They have a broad requirement for all types of engineers and scientists. Every single engineering discipline you can think of is required to operate one of those vessels.”

The consortium will provide the university with $1.6 million over six years to fund its work in the program, dependent on its receipt of $50 million in funding from the Naval Sea Systems Command. NAVSEA engineers, builds and maintains the Navy’s ships, submarines and combat systems. “What we are getting funded to do by the Navy is to build programs, courses, multi-engineering teams, project-based learning,” Nowak says

NEEC is led by the University of Michigan, one of the few universities in the nation with a naval architecture and marine engineering department. Other participating institutions include MIT, Penn State and Virginia Tech. Faculty at the participating universities will take on a range of research projects, from alternative energy sources to advanced ship design, and students’ learning will be amplified under the NEEC umbrella, explains David Akopian, associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering and co-investigator for UTSA’s NEEC program. “They indirectly will be helping with the research, but the primary goal is for them to learn,” Akopian says.

The Wolf Pack

At UTSA, the focus will be on various aspects of unmanned vessels, including navigation, communication and vehicle autonomy. “The Navy wants [submarine and robot vehicles] to be more autonomous. They want to see them working together,” says Nowak, whose own research aims to develop artificial intelligence to compensate for lossy, or noisy communication.

Enter the Wolf Pack. That’s what Nowak and Akopian have nicknamed one of their research projects, a collection of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), or “wolves.” Water prevents many forms of communication and forces the development of alternative methods. “They have to change and move around,” Nowak says, likening the AUVs to an efficient pack of wolves. “How do you keep everybody working together even though they are far apart? How do you make a decision? Is there one AUV in charge of the wolf pack or are they collectively working together and making a decision together?”

Akopian is researching software-defined instrumentation for AUVs, a more universal and easily upgraded navigation system. Nowak’s polar undersea ice project aims to use landmarks on the underside of the ice to create a navigation system for AUVs. Another research area uses AUVs to map coastal regions, which change frequently due to tides and weather. “They may want to have a bunch of Marines come in and land somewhere,” Nowak says. “Well, they need to understand the terrain. It depends on whether it rained that day or the week before, are there any mudslides, et cetera. How does that change things?”

Nowak notes that AUVs, and NEEC as a whole, benefit more than just the military. “This has direct application to studying our environment: oil spills, to see what’s happening after hurricanes—you can use this to study water quality. This has multiuse technology.”

While UTSA stands to gain much from its participation in NEEC, it also brings a lot to the table, Akopian and Nowak point out. “There is untapped student talent here,” Akopian says. Nowak notes the lack of barriers at UTSA to moving ahead on projects and programs. “We are a young university, we are eager, extremely bright, and we collaborate.”

Naval Engineering Offers Great Variety

Naval engineering is a rich field with a wide range of research areas, says Steven Ceccio, director of NEEC and professor in the departments of mechanical engineering and naval architecture and marine engineering at the University of Michigan. “When we think about naval engineering, maybe someone’s first mental image is someone putting together a ship hull, but it’s system integration, weapons systems and propulsion systems, and energy distribution.” The program aims to identify and train students who are already enrolled in engineering programs and might be interested in—but possibly unfamiliar with— the field of naval engineering, Ceccio says.

The 2010-2011 academic year was spent planning, according to Akopian. With the annual funding of projects expected early this fall, students interested in NEEC will be able to take classes that reference the program this spring (2012).

The low supply of trained engineers affects more than just the Navy. “It is a broad problem that all of the Department of Defense branches are having,” Nowak says, explaining that the tech fields have attracted the attention of students in recent decades. “A lot of the young engineers, myself included, never considered working for the Navy.” But the Navy boasts top-notch facilities which allow researchers to do exciting work. “They have extensive testing facilities and computational capabilities,” Nowak says. “They are tackling very interesting and very complex problems. When I was graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I didn’t even know this was an option.”

Students involved with the NEEC program are also eligible for scholarships, internships and other opportunities. Nowak says the program may provide chances for students to spend a summer at another NEEC university, where they will benefit from experiencing a different university culture, energizing them for their return to campus. Faculty also will be able to do research at partner universities. This past summer, two graduate research assistants in Nowak’s lab were accepted into the Navy Research Enterprise Intern Program at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island. Graduate student Trey Fawcett says his assignment to program the navigation of an unmanned underwater vehicle while adjusting for ocean currents was completely new to him. “It’s been a real eye-opener in terms of working for the Navy on real research projects that aren’t canned.” Such exchanges and collaboration are just one example of the strengths of NEEC’s network of universities.

“From a research perspective, the problems are very difficult,” Nowak says. “No university has all the elements to service the Navy’s needs.” Having a network of universities plugged in to various aspects of naval engineering will foster connections among students that will carry on throughout their professional lives, Ceccio says. “By having a large concentration of activity, we can form a community to allow students to see how they are going to fit into a larger community across the country.” Simply being a part of NEEC is exciting, Akopian adds. “I think this is an outstanding opportunity. As a kind of Navy hub university, that is valuable in itself,” he says, adding that students stand to enjoy better job prospects as the college’s Navy-related infrastructure grows. Nowak hopes participating in NEEC will pay off in the way of more research opportunities. “I want to grow the Navy type of research we do here at UTSA.”

The NEEC program will address three of the five elements of the university’s strategic plan—energy, sustainability and security, says College of Engineering Dean C. Mauli Agrawal, adding that the grant itself “covers the whole gamut of education and research for us in one grant.” “We’re really happy to be part of this Tier One level team, and we look forward to doing great things,” he notes. That collaboration will not only benefit UTSA as it seeks to attain Tier One status itself but will also mean a richer and more robust research process for complex research issues.

“The problems that we’ve identified in these areas are not going to be solved overnight,” he says, explaining that giving a front-row seat to the next generation of scientists will better prepare them to tackle challenges in the future, benefiting the students and society as a whole.

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