The concept of “the last frontier” is one frequently bandied about by popular writers. Whether the phrase refers to the Western frontier of American expansion in centuries past, or specific “hot” fields of scientific inquiry, or the vast expanse of interplanetary and interstellar space, the concept is always the same: there’s one Great Mysterious Place left for us to go, and (“fill in the blank”) is that Place.
It turns out that frontiers don’t work like that. It’s true that sometimes a constraint closes off further exploration of a place; once the American border reached the Pacific Ocean, there wasn’t a whole lot of Old West left to “discover.” (The people who had already been living there for 10,000 years probably knew that.) But it’s far more common to find that expansion and discovery are never-ending, that new exploration is always worthwhile, that there is always something more over the horizon.
Or under it. For centuries – actually, for millennia - the world ocean of our planet has been a vast empty space on the map. Explorers skimmed its surface looking for new land-based opportunity, and merchants and warriors fought along its peripheries for access to new markets and new resources on the lands that the ocean adjoins. What lay beneath has been a murky question mark – a question mark hard to find, harder to reach, and almost impossible to exploit.
Technological progress is rapidly revising that predicament. The earliest historically-attested submersible vehicles, built in the 1600s, could attain depths of less than a hundred feet, in calm waters, for periods of a few minutes at best – and couldn’t see or do much while they were down there. Today’s bathyspheres, submarines, and advanced remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) have reached the uttermost depths of the ocean floor, can move at up to 40 miles per hour underwater, can stay submerged for weeks or even months, and can visualize and interact with environmental features and objects with a huge variety of tools. The ocean, while not “the last frontier” (because we aren’t likely to run out of those), is now a frontier which is eminently accessible.
It’s a frontier with resources that humanity desperately needs. The potential is almost infinite – fully three-quarters of the surface of our world is under the ocean. And although much of the ocean floor is theoretically “barren” – not much growing there, not much living there – there are subsurface resources almost beyond cataloguing. In fact, we haven’t even begun to catalogue them – they’ve been too hard to reach! But as that is changing, the potential for energy resources – oil and gas just to start, although uranium and thorium are more likely to be long-term contributors to the global economy – is vast. Already, about a sixth of US oil production comes from offshore and the numbers are building quickly. Deep-water oil formations have barely begun to be explored, and although there are environmental considerations, the ocean is likely to produce the majority of world energy needs within our lifetimes.
There is also tremendous potential for health and wellness from the undersea environment. In today’s pharmaceutical environment, many dramatic developments in new treatments and new drugs come from exploitation of newly-discovered species. For example, a promising breast-cancer drug is under development from a species of Japanese black sponge, while a bacteria found in the Bahamas has been shown to produce compounds that can be used to produce antibiotics and cancer-fighting drugs. What’s even more exciting is that an estimated 90% of oceanic species have not yet been discovered or catalogued – the extent of this incredible harvest of potential medical advances is literally waiting to be discovered.
There’s just something about robots.
Kids today grew up with robots represented in half the TV shows, books, and movies they were exposed to. The older generation remembers a childhood of R2-D2 and C3P0 – and their parents, in turn, remember Robbie the Robot, Klaatu, and other spectacular pulp-era automatons. Robots immediately seize the attention and fire the imagination of children in a way no other technology can.
We recently attended the Southcoast MA Mini Makers Faire, held near our Massachusetts headquarters, and saw first-hand how blazingly excited kids got with exposure to robots. Fortunately, the beneficial influence of studying robotics goes way beyond maker’s fairs and trade shows. Robotics may, in fact, be the key to inspiring the next generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) researchers, workers, and entrepreneurs.
There is a developing crisis in the STEM field. Employment analysts expect that by 2018 there will be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs in the United States alone – and new STEM jobs are desperately needed. In fact, STEM fields will grow almost twice as fast as conventional areas of employment in this decade. Higher education is doing its part, but the fact is that inspiring young kids to go into STEM fields is the key to ensuring that the American workforce is up to the challenge of dealing with a high-tech economy.
And that may well be where the robots come in. Research shows that engagement with STEM concepts in early childhood and elementary school is practical – the kids can grasp the ideas – and effective. Specifically, out-of-school activities that engage the attention of young kids are very likely to create a lifelong pattern of seeking new knowledge and activity in those same fields. Kids who do something educational *as a hobby on their own time* are clearly hooked. Robotics, as it happens, is an area where even very young kids can do meaningful work, and they will fight to get at the materials and lessons they need to do it.
One area of strong fit between robots and early childhood education is that the elementary school period is a time when kids are having to learn reading and abstract symbol manipulation skills – critical skills to have, obviously – but what they really want to do is to be hands-on, kinetic, to draw and to shape and to create physical objects. Working with robots encourages both the abstract skills that they need (but often aren’t terribly excited by) and expressing those skills with hands-on tinkering and mechanical work. Most of the math and science education in the lower grades is entirely theoretical – robotics allows kids to put what they are learning to direct, immediate application.
Fortunately, the robotics industry is well aware of how critically important it is to get the youngest new learners excited about robots. There is a vast wealth of resources available to schools and educational programs for designing, creating, and deploying robotics projects. Many of these programs are cast as competitions, such as the Wonder League Robotics Competition, where kids from 6 to 12 can compete in a series of events by sending in videos of their robots successfully completing a series of challenges. The Wonder League events focus on programming. The Vex IQ Challenge, for elementary and middle schoolers, focuses more on robot operations, while the First Lego League Jr., for kids age 6 to 10, is naturally all about the building. There are many other programs and events in a similar vein.
Class time in schools is, of course, a natural incubation point for STEM education, and robotics works well as the framework in which to teach a wide variety of STEM concepts. Teachers report that teaching robotics requires kids to look at complex systems made up of multiple parts, to design and connect those systems themselves, which teaches real-world problem solving. The kids are, of course, highly motivated because they are learning by doing, rather than by listening to a teacher talk. And kids who learn best on their own can do so even outside of the school environment with consumer systems like Lego MindStorms, a fully-functioning robotic development kit using Lego blocks for implementation.
No single concept is going to be a magic bullet that solves our shortage of STEM workers. It will take a lot of different ideas, and a lot of different initiatives, to get to where we need to be. It’s clear, though, that robotics is an area with vast potential to inspire young minds to innovate and design the world of the future.
One of the most exciting areas of innovation and growth in underwater vehicles is the development of underwater vehicles for the secondary education market – that is, middle school and high school students. These autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) aren’t as sophisticated as modern commercial craft, but they teach young people the basics of designing, building, and operating underwater vehicles in an affordable way. Underwater vehicles aimed at the high school education system (or the individual hobbyist) can be purchased in kit form for very modest amounts of money.
The SeaGlide is a glider, a unique form of untethered AUV. Gliders are autonomous winged robot vehicles which don’t have a conventional propulsion system – no propeller, in other words. Instead, they move by altering their buoyancy – taking in or pumping out water – and altering their center of gravity. Each change in buoyancy causes the craft to rise and sink. With each cycle of rising and falling, the glider’s wings cause a pressure differential which generates forward velocity – the craft literally glides through the water. This is an extremely energy-efficient, albeit slow, form of propulsion – in 2009 an autonomous glider called Scarlet Knight made a 221-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The SeaGlide doesn’t have that kind of endurance, but it still can teach young science and engineering students a great deal about AUVs. SeaGlide kits come with everything needed to build an autonomous underwater glider, complete with temperature and pressure sensors. There is also a complete curriculum, covering electronics, soldering, programming using the Arduino Pro Mini computers that control the SeaGlide, building the servo-driven motor that powers the SeaGlide, and more. Since each SeaGlide kit costs less than $250, it is an accessible learning tool for students everywhere.
(You can learn more about SeaGlide at www.seaglide.net.)
Students interested in a more conventional ROV might want to look at the SeaPerch program. SeaPerch is a curriculum and kit combination that allows students to build an ROV from low-cost, readily-available parts. The SeaPerch curriculum is very thorough, covering ship and submarine design, buoyancy, propulsion, soldering, tool usage, electronics, waterproofing, the physics of underwater motion, career possibilities in underwater industries, and much more. Students learn practical engineering techniques and principles in the process of building their own ROV – and they get to design the ROV themselves, since the SeaPerch is a concept and a kit, not a specific formal design.
SeaPerch is more than just an ROV kit, however. The program offers training to teachers (“teaching the teachers”) including continuing education credits for free one and 1.5 day training events, as well as providing free online training. There is also a nationwide network of competitive districts for SeaPerch Challenges, allowing students to compete with their vehicles in head-to-head matchups with other schools, testing vehicle performance, design innovation and quality, build technique, and more. SeaPerch kits cost less than $200 apiece, with an optional $250 tool kit for schools which may not have things like soldering irons and power drills.
(You can learn more about SeaPerch at www.seaperch.org.)
As cool as they are, SeaPerch and SeaGlide are just the tip of the underwater vehicle iceberg. Students interested in learning more about a career in underwater technology should check out MATE, the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center, a national organization dedicated to advancing marine technical education and preparing the future marine technology workforce. MATE sponsors and runs national-level ROV competitions, and they also offer on-board internship programs on research vessels operated by the US Coast Guard, the Ocean Exploration Trust, and University National Oceanographic Laboratory System.
MATE has comprehensive information on college-level marine technology programs, scholarships, and internships, and they offer faculty development workshops for teachers and professors of marine science. MATE also publishes “Underwater Robotics: Science, Design & Fabrication”, the gold standard textbook in the building of ROVs and AUVs, and provides free guides and tutorials on constructing a number of more advanced ROVs.
(You can learn more about MATE’s extensive program offerings at www.marinetech.org.)