College of Engineering collaborates with U.S. Navy

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In Rowan University’s College of Engineering, students dive into solving real-life problems through innovative clinics. This semester, mechanical engineering students are working with the United States Navy.

Led by Dr. Thomas Merrill, mechanical engineering assistant professor, juniors and seniors are working alongside engineers at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) and Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in Lakehurst, N.J., and Philadelphia, respectively.

“When the Navy has a problem, we have to define it in ways we understand,” said Merrill. “Then we explore potential solutions and begin designing, building, analyzing and testing.”

Student ownership

Merrill stressed the importance of independence after providing students with the problem and resources. “I try to make the clinic different than other projects and courses by giving students ownership. In many ways, the students will sink or swim based on their own internal motivation,” he said.

For the NAVAIR team, that means improving the sensors on aircraft carriers’ water brake system. “Over time, the system has to be maintained and the Navy has a hard time judging their maintenance cycle because the sensors they use keep failing on the system. We’re looking at alternative ways of measuring pressure versus time in the water brake,” said senior Tyler McGahee, 22, of Burlington Township, N.J.

Along with junior teammates Michael Brattoli, 21, of Florhan Park, N.J.; David Essner, 20, of Jackson, N.J.; and Jaimie Reiff, 20, of Beach Haven, N.J.; McGahee began assessing the problem with a tour of the water brake system at the Lakehurst base.

“The Navy engineers showed us all the parts of the water brake system, giving us a real scale of what we are working with, all the details. From there we started our plan of attack,” said Reiff.

Learning experience

While their original idea to scale the system down failed, the students received just what they’re here for — a learning experience.

“We realized it was completely impractical and then we started designing, thinking of solutions that would just simulate the conditions of the water brake system,” said Reiff.

After many calculations and four generations of design, the team members have a model to replicate the conditions they’re facing with the water brake.

“Right now, we’re looking into getting different companies to manufacture the parts for us. We have all the stock material, but we’re looking to see which local South Jersey manufacturing companies will be able to actually cut the parts we need,” said Essner.

“From there we can install our own solutions as if they were being attached straight to the water brake on an actual Navy carrier. Then we can see which solutions actually are feasible and work they way they are designed to,” said Brattoli.

Creating a robot

The NAVSEA team’s mission focuses on improving a laser metrology camera.

“It scans rooms and collects a 3-D image, taking the place of physically drawing a room. Their problem is they were setting it up on a tripod, physically screwing it in, and it was a long process. That hinders them from using the camera in places they can’t physically get to, like the hole in a submarine. They gave us guidelines, and we’re working to create a robot within those constraints – it has to raise above four feet, be about the size of a shoebox, able to raise and stabilize itself and go into damp conditions,” explained senior Jake Hostrander, 21, of Collegeville, Pa.

While researching, junior Matthew Rossett, 20, of Deptford, N.J., discovered a one-of-a-kind new invention, the Zippermast, a lift system to raise and lower the robot. He turned acquiring the Zippermast over to teammate Andreas Gabrielsen, a 21-year-old senior from Otisville, N.Y.

“That was a long process,” said Gabrielsen. “I finally got in touch with the inventor, George Woodruff, and he was really enthusiastic about the project. He likes working with military-related operations, so NAVSEA was perfect. We have it on loan now, with the option to purchase it for about $5,500. That already puts us over our clinic dollar budget. We’re discussing the feasibility of having it with our project managers. They were really impressed, but they’re running more tests on its electronics and stability before their purchasing department decides.”

If the Navy approves the Zippermast, it will serve as the camera’s main lift system. Once they’re ready, the team members – who also include junior Justin Aboloff, 21, of Marlton, N.J., and Ryan Laws, 21, of Jackson, N.J. – will test their design in a Navy environment. “It’s one thing to test it in Rowan Hall, it’s another to test it in a Navy ship,” said Merrill.

Career path

Both projects started in the fall, and many of the students hope it will carry into a career. The clinic has inspired almost every one of the NAVAIR and NAVSEA team members to consider a career with the Navy.

Bratolli is one of them. “There are a lot of clinics in the engineering college that deal with real-life applications, but I just think these two especially, they’re really serious implications of what our work could be. If it does turn out successful, it could cut costs for our military and make the system safer for those out fighting and protecting our country. If we don’t succeed it actually sets the Navy back, and then they have to find a way to figure out how they want to go about reaching their project goals. So there are real-life implications,” said Bratolli.

“Real-life risks,” interjected Reiff, planning a Navy career following her 2014 graduation.

“Very rewarding,” finished Bratolli.

In preparing them for their future Naval career, the students compare it to an internship.

Good experience

“Even without having my definite decision of what I want to follow, whether it’s the Navy or not, I definitely think this is a good experience for anyone, really. It’s a lot of hands-on and design work,” said Laws. “Once you come in here, they kind of just let you go on your own. You work on your own projects. It’s an independent and self-motivated experience.”

That’s exactly what Merrill is aiming for. “We try to encourage life-long learning skills in the students, things that are not necessarily textbook driven, but rather curiosity driven, persistence driven, ambition driven,” he said.

Merrill adds to the realistic experience by requiring the team to track their time sheets.

“They spend between probably five and 20 hours some weeks working on the project. That gets charged at a $75 an hour rate, and each month we invoice the Navy. Now these are fictitious invoices, but in the real world, if we were part of a consulting company, those would be real-world dollars,” explained Merrill. “I would say the Navy gets an incredible bargain. If you consider by the time we get done this you’re at 300 hours, it would be $22,500 worth of charges that they paid $5,000 for [the cost of the partnership].”

The students seem to sincerely appreciate this realistic system. “The way Rowan’s curriculum is structured you’re getting your hands dirty right from the get-go,” said Brattolli. “Between our projects, classes and the clinics, it really gives a nice foundation that really puts life to the things you read about in the book.”

Said Essner, “Other students are told something breaks. Here, we’re told it breaks then shown how it happens in the actual environment. By the time you get to your junior year you’re like ‘Ok, I’m actually comfortable with this.’ I can dive into these projects for the Navy, for any organization, and actually feel comfortable doing it.”