Cornell lab goes '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' with new subs

By Matt Porter

April 7, 2014 Updated Apr 7, 2014 at 6:48 PM EDT

Ithaca, NY (WBNG Binghamton) Deep in the bowels of Upson Hall on the Cornell University campus, a team of undergraduate students tinker away at an autonomous submarine designed to search and work on the ocean floor.

Kent Esslinger joined the team as a freshman finding an experience he never would have imagined.

"To be a part of sort of a mini-company that is totally run by students, which is very unique," Esslinger said.

He said when the team encounters an issue, they work together to solve the problem.

"We usually get as many people, as many heads on the idea as we can," he said, "Then move forward from that point to try and get over those hurdles or speed bumps."

Team leader Markus Burkardt said each new sub built has to improve upon the last model.

"Often our improvements go around making the vehicle lighter, faster and also increasing the endurance of our own vehicles as well," Burkardt said.

The primary criteria for any sub built in this lab is to be completely autonomous, which means the subs are programmed to work on their own.

Burkardt described the typical scenario of what an autonomous sub must be able to do.

"You literally drop it off in the water, it goes and searches for two weeks," Burkardt said. "And then you come back around at some point when it surfaces and it sends out a GPS signal and we pick it up."

Technology developed in these labs could end up being adapted for AUVs built to search the ocean for wreckage like the missing Malaysian aircraft.

Burkardt said charging stations can also be built under water to increase the length of time an AUV can remain in the open water.

"You can deploy these for longer periods of time as well, and cover much more area than you would with humans on board," he said.

The team has won a national competition for AUVs in four out of the past five years.

The next competition for its new sub, Gemini, is this summer in San Diego.

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