Since 1945 NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility has launched thousands of rockets with space and earth science experiments. The Virginia-based facility has also expanded to provide support for the International Space Station. The infrastructure at Wallops is mission critical for the agency but the facilities are at risk from coastal flooding, erosion, salt-water intrusion, and more. Shippensburg University students are working to reduce this risk.
For years, Ship students have been monitoring impacts on the barrier island. Through participation in the Chincoteague Bay Field Station since 2011, Ship has provided geologic mapping expertise and students have gathered water quality data.
Guided by geography/earth science professor, Dr. Sean Cornell, students have installed water-monitoring systems and routinely deploy expensive commercially manufactured data sensors to measure water temperature, salinity, and water levels. Students physically retrieved water sensors from the field and took them to the lab for data download, calibration, and re-programming. The process was time consuming and sensors could malfunction or become damaged in rough weather. Sensor loss meant months of data would be lost. Moreover, the very act of retrieving the sensors disturbed the natural system and could often impact the water quality and results.
So, Dr. Cornell turned to colleagues, Dr. Thomas Briggs and Dr. Carol Wellington, in Ship’s Computer Science and Engineering Department. The problem: a need for low-cost, permanently-deployable environmental data sensors that can relay data from coastal environments to scientists in real-time. Since the technology solution did not exist, this was the real-world engineering problem Dr. Briggs and Dr. Wellington were looking to tackle with their students.
“Geography/earth science students understand what the data tells us, but they don’t know how the technology works, and likewise the engineers don’t necessarily understand how to interpret the water quality data, but they do understand how to design hardware and software systems to collect and process the data into a usable format according to a specific user’s needs. That’s what is really cool about this,” said Cornell.
Ship’s computer engineering students have worked to design individual sensors that link to other sensors to create a wireless network where sensors talk to each other through radio and cell phone systems. By building a series of circuit boards in the fabrication lab at Ship, students have engineered sensors to accurately measure the same types of data collected by expensive commercial sensors, but at a fraction of the cost and with greater functionality. The designs have even been taken a step further. It is now possible to download the data and program the systems remotely. When a sensor goes off-line, the systems sends an alert in near real time.
Additionally, mechanical engineering students were challenged to build secure sensor housings to withstand harsh saltwater conditions that negatively impact electrical systems.
And now, software engineering students are building a web-based interface that takes data from the sensors so scientists can visualize data to improve sustainability and resiliency for NASA Wallops. The implications are far reaching. The new system can eventually be deployed around the globe. Plus, students have valuable experiences to take into their careers.
“The NASA project exposes me to a real-world experience that I know I couldn’t get anywhere else,” said Nahesha Paulection, junior software engineering major.
Dr. Cornell sees first-hand the irreplaceable impact on learning. “What Ship is offering students is not only the physical connection to the ocean and the world beyond, but we are also providing opportunities for students to help develop meaningful solutions for problems that are only going to get worse.” It’s the kind of educational experience Ship aims to create for every student.