Hood College graduate students build robotic boat to measure city's reservoir

New method cuts down on costs and time

FREDERICK, Md. - When Frederick officials wanted to learn more about Fishing Creek Reservoir they asked Hood College for help.

"That reservoir was built in the early 1900s to hold a lot of water, and it's been about 100 years, so they wanted to see if there's any need to build it out, dredge it out, anything like that," said Peter O'Connor, one of the graduate students who worked on the project.

The reservoir is a source of water for the city, and officials want to know if there's been a change in how much it can hold.

"Rain has occurred, sediments occur, things have gotten in there. So, if you budget a system to have 25 million gallons of water, and it's down to 20 million gallons of water that's one-fifth of your water supply," said O’Connor.

But mapping the depth of the 50-million-gallon reservoir can be tedious, and what was once done by hand is now getting some power.

"We started from scratch building a hull, then we ended up figuring out how to get the sonar information, how to get the brains in the machine, how to power it for that long of a period of time," O’Connor said.

With the newly-constructed robotic boat, the Hood College team of graduate students and professors turned what would’ve been a several-day operation into a procedure that took less than five hours. The team programmed the boat to collect depth measurements throughout the reservoir, which was used to create a map of the bottom.

"We definitely uncovered information that reveals changes from what they had originally planned for that system," O’Connor said.

However, the group hasn’t released their findings yet, and they plan to present them to the city next week.

And it's their discovery of something new from something created that made the project an engineer’s dream.

"You got a computer running on a boat, it's doing artificial intelligence by just moving on its own, and you're kind of sitting back watching it, enjoying it, and you're just realizing the stuff you do has impacts on the world," O’Connor said.

He estimates the project total to be around $2,000, making it a much more cost-effective way of collecting the measurements.

They also have plans to make the technology available to other communities in the future. 

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