Students, professors work on pilot-less boat for Navy

Some University of Louisiana at Lafayette mechanical engineering students and professors are preparing for a grueling but rewarding spring semester, when work starts on developing technology for a military boat that can navigate a river’s twists and turns without a human at the helm.

Swiftships, a Morgan City company that builds commercial and military watercraft, sought out UL-Lafayette’s engineering department following the success of the university’s CajunBot almost 10 years ago. CajunBot was a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, built by students and professors, that used an autonomous piloting system in a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004 and 2005.

UL-Lafayette’s latest endeavor with the military is not a competition with other schools but a collaboration with a military boat builder. The task this time is to install an almost-sentient computer system that can pilot a boat for the Navy, a project with a three- to five-year time line.

Joshua Vaughan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said he and doctoral-level engineering students along with undergraduates will attempt to apply CajunBot technology to a Swiftships military boat called the “Anaconda,” a sleek, fast 35-foot vessel.

Vaughan said the first task will be installing a remote-control system on the Anaconda, then work on the computer program that would operate the boat.

“The high-level control stuff is the same as the CajunBot,” Vaughan said. “How it turns left, how it turns right, is the same.”

Vaughan said he and his team of students will start with simple goals: point-to-point, straight-line navigation, then slowly program in simple turns in open water until the Anaconda can cut figure-eights.

“It’s the basics of navigation,” he said.

Two students assisting Vaughan, Nicholas Bergeron and Brett Marks, said they and others designated for the team will be consumed with the work next semester.

“This is very high on the priority list. Next semester’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Marks, 28, who is pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a master’s in oceanography from LSU.

The team’s first task is to write computer code for the system, then test it to clear out the bugs, said Bergeron, 24, a Mississippi State biological engineering graduate who is pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

All students on the team will work on the Swiftships project between and after classes.

“This is like having a job and going to class. This will be our job,” Marks said.

Swiftships’ director of special programs, Eric Geibel, said his company became interested in UL-Lafayette’s know-how after the success of the CajunBot.

“We’re always trying to look at the latest in technology, the latest innovation for the development of our commercial and military vessels,” Geibel said.

He said the Navy wants a fast boat that can maneuver atop inland waterways without a person at the wheel.

The missions where a pilotless boat could save soldiers’ lives are plentiful, he said: sending a boat into an environmentally unsound area to test air and water quality; mapping a hostile area; transporting food and ammunition to a remote spot.

Geibel said simply having a vessel that’s controlled remotely, which the military already has in its aircraft and watercraft fleets, is limiting.

“We’re taking it to the autonomous level because we believe that when you’re operating in an environment like a river, which has so many varying conditions and situations, that the vessel has to have some semblance of awareness of the environment in which it’s operating,” he said.

Remotely controlled boats use cameras with poor or limited peripheral vision and little immediate information about changing currents and wind and water depths, Geibel said.

Geibel said the abundance of waterways surrounding Morgan City and in other parts of south Louisiana provide worthy test grounds for the Anaconda and the company’s other boats.