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NSWC PCD, Florida Tech Demonstrate Collaborative UUV Progress

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Students are landing real job opportunities by breathing life into broken unmanned underwater systems, thanks to a partnership with the U.S. Navy.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) is leading the way through a win-win agreement with the Florida Institute of Technology (Florida Tech) that is aimed at cultivating the Department of the Navy’s next generation of scientists and engineers.

The program allows undergraduate and graduate students at Florida Tech to apply academic knowledge to real-world science and engineering experiences by resurrecting old unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

In 2010, the first 21-inch, inoperable Battlespace Preparation Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (BPAUV) was transferred to Florida Tech’s Ocean Engineering Department. The new home for the BPAUV was made possible by an Education Partnership Agreement and approval from the National Unmanned Systems Shared Resource Center (NUSSRC). It is funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the organization charged with centralizing the Navy’s outreach efforts to increase the talent pool of students pursuing education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“Florida Tech got it up and running for the student projects,” said Phil Bernstein, Unmanned Systems Technology Branch Head. “The results of that transfer have been so positive that we’re in the process of transferring another one. It’ll be interesting to see where this takes the students next.”

ONR Battlespace Sensing Program Officer Dr. Tom Swean authorized the transfer because he sees it as an investment in STEM and government science and technology. Dr. Joan Cleveland, also a Program Officer in the ONR Battlespace Sensing Division, is excited about the opportunities this exchange offers.

“The nation needs talented and enthusiastic scientists and engineers in order to remain a world technology leader. This hands-on experience for Florida Tech students to engineer and perform research with a real autonomous underwater vehicle is an excellent example of a successful approach to building the next generation of innovators’ confidence and interest in careers in STEM-related fields,” she said. “More importantly, opportunities like this are critical to ensuring that the nation and the Navy stay out in front."

A second inoperable vehicle that is currently used for static display only is being prepped for transfer. In addition, a launch and recovery prototype developed by the NSWC PCD Test Engineering Branch will be loaned to Florida Tech for use during further studies in accordance with the Education Partnership Agreement. Bernstein is the NSWC PCD and ONR liaison for this equipment transfer to Florida Tech in cooperation with the NUSSRC.

“NUSSRC is funded by ONR and serves as an unmanned systems asset pool that provides UUVs to academia and government researchers in support of their work on Navy initiatives,” Bernstein said.

NSWC PCD Test Engineering Branch Head Tony Bond and Florida Tech Ocean Engineering Program Chair Dr. Stephen Wood formalized the relationship between the Navy’s research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) laboratory in Bay County and Florida Tech in 2008 with a signed Education Partnership Agreement.

Bond, who also serves as NSWC PCD’s School Manager for Florida Tech, is responsible for recruiting students from the university.

“One of the first things I discovered, in that capacity, was that the Florida Tech students were not eligible to apply for intern programs like NREIP (the Naval Research Enterprise Intern Program) because we didn’t have a formal agreement,” said Bond. “Once in place, the Education Partnership Agreement allowed students to work here during the summer, participate in actual test events, and get hands-on experience using the vehicles in NUSSRC’s asset pool.” This led to the notion that some of the older vehicles that were to be put in storage could be transferred to Florida Tech for educational purposes.

“I thought the BPUAV would be put to good use as a training tool at Florida Tech, and it’s worked out very well. The students have worked on the vehicle and made it fully functional. This past year they completed 10 successful deployments with the vehicle,” said Bond. “Clearly, this is preparing the students to do the kind of work we are involved in at NSWC PCD long before they get here. Essentially, these students report here as interns or permanent employees, and they are ready to go. The students have gone beyond just operating the BPAUV. They have developed expertise in maintaining and repairing it as well.”

Bond said the second vehicle about to be transferred to Florida Tech will require the control section to be rebuilt. Students plan to develop state-of-the-art navigational and control software based on new artificial intelligence theories.

The students’ involvement has become so beneficial to NSWC PCD and ONR that Bernstein now includes the students in program reviews.

“Without question, this collaboration lays the foundation for graduate work on real-world needs. It also creates a path for potential government and academic joint partnerships,” said Bernstein. “There is a clear and distinct return on investment seen with this partnership.”

One recent success story resides with Florida Tech graduate student Cheryl Skibski, who was one of the first students to work on the transferred BPAUV.

“In Cheryl’s case, she got a job at Bluefin that is normally given to someone who has been with them for four years,” Bond said. “That says a lot right there. I remember her telling me about the interview and how they were showing her a Bluefin vehicle; and she knew all about it already.”

Bond said Florida Tech’s ocean engineering program is a multidisciplinary program; and graduates qualify for government jobs not only in ocean engineering, but also in electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering.

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