Sophomore Josh Ambrose pushed a button on a remote control and the red LED lights mounted outside the submarine blinked on and pulsed in alternating patterns. A jellyfish drifted by, its tentacles wriggling in the ocean current like a nightclub dancer. Several more jellies floated beyond.
"Squid disco!" said Tym Catterson, the pilot of the Antipodes, a small submarine operated by the OceanGate Foundation, an organization who's mission is to expand humanity's understanding of the world's oceans through exploration, education and outreach.
Josh grinned, and not just at the joke. The device he and several fellow students had created in Professor Steve Moore's marine robotics class had worked just as it was supposed to.
In the class, science and computer science majors learn electronics and robotics skills that will help them get jobs in an increasingly technology-oriented world. Each semester, the students take on a special project. One year they built a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) for undersea exploration. Last year they built a robotic surfboard that could navigate using GPS.
This semester, the students had been working with OceanGate pilots and engineers to develop devices that would enhance the submarine's ability to conduct scientific research underwater. The problem they faced was how to operate devices outside the sub -- without drilling a hole in the vessel to run wires through.
Their solution was to use a TV remote to send infared signals through the window of the sub. Though it sounds simple, this solution wasn't as easy as it sounds. They had to test to see if the signal could pass through the three-inch-thick, dome-shaped, acrylic viewing window on Antipodes. And once it got through the window, the water would absorb the signal within an inch or two, so the receiver needed to be mounted close to the window -- and waterproof, and able to withstand the extreme pressure of 900-foot dives.
On Oct. 22, Josh and Professor Moore took their gadget to the undersea proving grounds. For the initial test, the remote would set off a blinking light display. Later, the device could be reprogrammed to operate two more student-built research tools: a mechanical gripper for deploying and recovering scientific instruments, and an automated gadget for collecting seawater samples at various depths and locations.
The Seattle-based crew of the Antipodes towed the sub out to the dive site, where they submerged amid a flurry of bubbles. Joining Josh and Professor Moore for the ride were two local school teachers, who were participating as part of OceanGate's educational outreach activities.
After successfully turning on the squid disco, Josh had the opportunity to pilot the sub and check out a sunken shipwreck, where they saw numerous rockfish and a young mola mola.
The following week, the gripper and water sampler were tested.
Due to a mechanical failure of the harbor crane, these devices had to be attached to the sub while it was in the water. Fortunately CSUMB's Scientific Diving Program came to the rescue. Dive Safety Officer Frank Degnan, in collaboration with the Harbor Master, authorized a dive to install the student's scientific instruments on the sub while it was docked in the marina. Professor Moore and student scientific diver Cortlen Hernandez donned wetsuits and spent an hour in the water mounting these instruments to the Antipodes.
The sub went out again, this time carrying Space Shuttle astronaut Scott Parazynski as a passenger, who witnessed another successful test of the equipment.
Professor Moore's class accomplished their mission to develop new research tools for the Antipodes and OceanGate Foundation. And the jellyfish swished their groove thangs.
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