“This is a big deal, guys.”
That is what Jackie Sly ’14 tells freshmen and sophomores she has helped recruit for the Marine Robotics Team (MRT), an Edgerton Center-sponsored team that focuses on applying engineering and design to solve real-world problems.
Sly has been involved in MRT since her freshman year and currently serves as team captain, working with team leads David Wise ’14 and Tommy Moriarty ’14. This past August, Sly, Moriarty, Wise and teammate Adrian Tanner (Boston University ’14) received funding from the Edgerton Center to travel to Ketchikan, Alaska, with Edgerton instructor, team mentor and Tommy Moriarty’s father, Ed Moriarty. There, they were given special permission to conduct glider testing on buoyancy and pitch control (among other glider behaviors) in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s large indoor dive pool.
What started as one day of permitted testing extended to an entire week after pool managers saw the impressive work the team was doing. At the end of the one-week period, the team achieved what one member, Tanner, describes as “a glorious moment” — when they sent their glider, untethered, down nearly 45 feet into the ocean and watched it come back up.
Inspiring the next generation of underwater vehicle builders
During their time in Alaska, the team also worked with middle school students and teachers by helping with a program called SeaGlide. The goal of SeaGlide is to introduce students to underwater vehicles and teach them how to create mini-gliders using water bottles and an arduino (a type of microcontroller). The program period coincided with the visit of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who took time to speak with Sly and other team members about MRT’s work.
When describing this and other MRT-related projects, Sly’s eyes light up. Her motivation for leading MRT comes from the knowledge that she is guiding the next generation of leaders in ocean engineering. Through collaboration with other MIT organizations such as the Society for Women Engineers (SWE) and Keys to Empowerment Youth (KEYS), Sly has been able to share her passion for building not only with MRT members but also with young students who might one day be engineers.
An IAP class that kick started Sly's passion
Interestingly, Sly herself only identified ocean engineering as a potential career two years ago, when she took an Independent Activities Period (IAP) class called Turbo that exposed her to marine robotics for the first time. Since then, she has dedicated every vacation period to working on MRT projects and notes that the team has not had to seek out projects. The projects seem to come to them. Companies such as Chevron see the value of applying low-cost, high-impact gliders in the oil industry to collect data on local oil concentrations in the water or temperature data needed to design off-shore structures, for example. The Navy also is interested in this technology because of its applications in surveillance and military intelligence.
Learning how to be hands-off to help the learning process
Indeed, last month, MRT members traveled to Bethesda, Md., for a day to explore their glider’s autonomy in a state-of-the-art Navy testing facility. Moriarty describes the value of this experience, particularly for new members, saying that students learned not only how to put together and take apart the team’s glider but also how to plan ahead, evaluate success and react quickly when things do not proceed as expected. He emphasizes the importance of failure in the learning process, saying that one of the most important things for him, as team lead, was to be “hands-off, to let people fail a little bit, make mistakes and find their own ways to put things together.”
Upon reflecting on his MRT experience, Moriarty underscores the extent to which MRT has taught him about the engineering design process and about making a real difference in the world. Sly shares Moriarty’s excitement for MRT and ocean engineering, highlighting the value of her MRT experience in motivating her to go to graduate school and pursue further study in the field. In the future, she envisions herself living on an ocean coast, continuing her hands-on approach to engineering and both developing and improving underwater vehicles.
While these plans are not finalized, Sly knows one thing for certain: her MIT career would not be the same without MRT. As she herself puts it, “being in an Edgerton Club puts you ahead in a project class — you learn how to approach real problems and learn how to think technically.” The team’s faculty mentor, Franz Hover, the Finmeccanica Career Development Professor in Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, agrees, saying, “The MRT has now as a central focus its gliding underwater robot, that should be able to do real environmental monitoring work at sea. The students quickly see the 'reality' of this mission and I think it is compelling to them.”
So what’s next for the Marine Robotics Team? As Moriarty puts it, they’re “going to break some boundaries and work toward technologies that can actually be implemented in the field as a strong product.”