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Students combine robotics, electrical, and mechanical engineering to create an underwater autonomous vehicle to collect data 250-feet beneath the surface.  

The four-foot long, bright orange, torpedo-shaped device sits perched upon a table in a Widener engineering laboratory, awaiting its water debut.

For more than a year, a team of engineering students has been designing (and re-designing), coding, and building this 50-pound underwater autonomous vehicle known as SyFish.

The goal was to cheaply but effectively create a device that could reach depths of 250-feet to map the sea floor, collect data on fish habitats, inspect submerged structures, and perform numerous other potential real-world industrial applications – all without needing a human to control it.

“There are six pumps throughout. It has code in it and uses sensors to recognize if a wall is in front of it,” explains senior and team member Aron Motta. “We’re working on (building and attaching) a robotic arm for it, which will pick up objects in its way.”

SyFish is an integrated system of sensors, ballasts, pumps, coding, a camera, and other mechanical and electrical engineering elements, all packaged in water-tight PVC piping.

In many ways, it’s also a metaphor for Widener’s new undergraduate robotics engineering major, which debuts this fall.

The major - the first of its kind in the region – is multidisciplinary, integrating knowledge from various areas, including mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science, under one framework, with the goal of preparing students for careers on the cutting edge of technology.

Widener students have access to high-tech robotic engineering lab equipment, and are taught and mentored by faculty who are experts in the field.

Everything leads up to robotics. It’s another step in what we’re learning.  

Aron Motta ‘18

An emerging discipline with widespread implications, robotics, like SyFish, crosses industry lines. In the 21st century, robotics is on the cusp of impacting every aspect of life and work, from automotive and aerospace, to healthcare, environmental remediation, and defense. Job growth in this field is expected to skyrocket.

“Automation is the future of the world and of the workforce. If you don’t have a basic understanding of robotics, you’re going to fall behind,” said senior Tobi Odesanya, a member of the SyFish team. 

Robotics isn’t just carving out a foothold in the world of automation and repetition. It’s also helping humans “access environments that are too dangerous or otherwise inaccessible, whether that’s outer space or underwater,” as in the case of SyFish’s mission, said Dr. Anthony Bellezza, faculty advisor on the SyFish project.

As for the SyFish team, their next step is completing and attaching the 16- to 20-inch robotic arm and submerging and testing the device in a body of water. Though seniors, the team plans to continue working and improving SyFish, even after graduation.

“It’s a stepping stone to something greater,” said team member Nalson Vo.