SAC Students Build Submarine to Help with Search and Rescue Events

August 30, 2017

Russell Guerrero - Public Information Officer

Fresh from designing and racing a vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cell, SAC students in the Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) Center took on a different challenge as part of the SAC Undergraduate Research Program held this summer.

The challenge was just as impressive: build an unmanned, underwater vehicle (UUV) from scratch in just 10 weeks. The vehicle would be equipped with cameras that would provide a look beneath the waterline while being operated on land. In addition, the submarine would include sonar to assist in locating objects obscured by murky water.

The student team included team leader Irene Salazar, team members Julio Banda, Dominic Ochoa, and Eben Pfeil, and Cesar Ventura. Adjunct faculty member Klaus Bartels served as the faculty advisor.

"We decided to build a UUV because we had never built anything for underwater use. It was an immense learning opportunity," said team member Banda. "Do it yourself UUV kits were out there for us to purchase, but we didn't (buy them). Had we bought a kit, our team would not have learned about designing an underwater vehicle chassis/frame, voltage drops across long wires, programming microcontrollers, buoyancy, and much more."

The students became very creative in their design in order to keep costs down. For example, they used an X-Box controller to move the vehicle underwater.  

One of the biggest obstacles in building the UUV was to find a sonar to attach to the frame. After several inquiries, the students contacted Tom Clutts, vice president of Amphib Public Safety, a Texas dive team that specializes in heavy underwater lift rescue and recovery operations and trainings. Clutts happily loaned the students a sonar for the summer project.

As work continued on the project, the team also reached out to other organizations who might be interested in testing the submarine. Hays County Emergency Services, Texas Search and Rescue, and the San Marcos Area Recovery Team all volunteered to assist the project.

After initial tests at swimming pools in San Pedro Springs Park, St. Philips College, and at Palo Alto College, the students met with members of the search and rescue teams at Aquarena Springs in San Marcos to give the submarine a real world, deep water test. The sub was lowered into the water and piloted in Spring Lake. The test was a success.

The emergency workers were so impressed, they promised to continue to work with the students. Ironically, some of the emergency team members spent the next day at a lake recovering the body of a man who drowned during the weekend. 

Although the summer research program has ended, members of the team will continue improving their prototype. Modifications include adding a 150-ft tether to allow it to go deeper underwater, shielding for the thruster blades, and adding a robotic arm to the frame.    

"We (also) hope to gain more knowledge of the sonar equipment and focus in testing our submarine in turbid water," said Salazar.

You can see a video of the UUV swimming underwater at