Olin Summer Research 2021: Building an Aquaculture Profiler

August 5, 2021

Are offshore aquaculture farms good for the environment? Are the fish healthy and growing? A team of Oliners, led by Jeff Dusek, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is working this summer to build a robot that will help Massachusetts fish farmers and researchers answer these questions.

Olin’s robot is designed to travel up and down mooring lines, to a depth of about 100 meters, with various sensors on board that can monitor the health of the fish and the environmental impact of the farm. As the robot travels vertically, it will collect data that will help researchers understand the impact of a farm throughout the full water column in various locations.

Two sitting students and one standing student in grey shirt confer with a standing professor in orange shirt over a macbook laptop and some new research in a classroom.

Professor Jeff Dusek looks over some new research with his 2021 Summer Research team. Photo by Leise Jones.

Dusek is the lead PI on this two-year research project funded by the MIT Sea Grant College Program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He collaborates with co-PIs Alessandra Ferzoco, Assistant Professor of Measurement Science at Olin, and Joanna Carey, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Babson College. Their summer 2021 team includes five Olin students: Shawn Albertson ’21, Zoie Leo ’24, Sofia Goldberg ’24, Lily Novak ’22 and Sander Miller ’22. 

A team of five students and one professor line up, all wearing orange life preserver vests with the ocean in the background.

The OCAP team in Machiasport ME. (L to R): Shawn Albertson '21; Sader Miller '22; Sofia Goldberg '24; Lilly Novak '22; Zoie Leo '24; Professor Jeff Dusek.

Massachusetts has a well-developed shellfish industry, yet there is limited available coastline available for shellfish farming in the shallow water near shore. As local fish farmers consider expanding to offshore aquaculture in the Commonwealth, Dusek notes the challenges of designing technologies for an industry that is expanding to Massachusetts, and hopes the work being done at Olin this summer will provide more tools and information as the industry expands.

With the acceleration of global warming and overfishing, there is a large, growing concern about the health of global fisheries, says Dusek. Advantages of offshore aquaculture include greater access to nutrients for the fish and stronger currents to flush waste away from farms. The global offshore aquaculture industry currently uses point (static) sensors to collect water quality data and monitor fish growth and health. Olin’s robot will have the ability to move vertically to collect data over a much greater range of depth.

The team spoke to local fish farmers and toured aquaculture sites this summer to learn more about the industry and its growth. “We had a lot of mixed ideas and opinions given to us by different sources about the effect of farms and where the industry is going,” said Sofia. “Being able to find data to better understand what the actual answers to these questions are would be interesting.”

Four student researchers hold down a small plastic device in a pool of water.

The research team tests the robot's up and down motions in Olin’s Large Project Building (LPB). Photo by Leise Jones.

Now in the second year of the project, the Olin team is testing their system prototype in the Large Project Building (LPB) pool. In the fall, they’re hoping to continue this summer’s progress by using the Babson diving well to test the robot’s up and down motions. “These pool tests were very helpful, and I look forward to being able to perform more pool tests when we create a streamlined body to encase the skeleton of the robot,” said Zoie.

Three students hold up a large cylinder device with red and green parts sticking onto it's body.

OCAP team members Zoie, Shawn and Sander hold up the team's robot in Olin’s Large Project Building (LPB).

“I will be leaving as a far more capable engineer than when I started this summer.”

When looking for an Olin research project to work on this summer, Sofia drew inspiration from her strengths outside of engineering. “My initial interest in this project came from my love of zoology, and an affinity for marine research,” she explained. Sofia is a certified SCUBA diver and 5-year volunteer at the National Aquarium, as well as an aspiring mechanical engineer, “so this project looked right up my alley.”

Sofia’s main focus this summer were the mechanical aspects of the robot’s design, specifically on modeling the whole robot’s layout in SolidWorks assemblies. “My team has been working together to design and manufacture laser cut parts for the skeleton structure that holds our battery storage pressure hulls together, along with 3D fixtures for the electronics pressure hulls and electronics held within.”

Besides having the opportunity to learn new engineering skills, Sofia enjoyed the opportunity to work on a research team for the first time. “I've been able to take on responsibilities and make things happen, while also being able to ask for advice and work with the group on larger decisions and tasks,” she said. “I had not expected to be trained on so many different shop tools by the end of the summer, but I am glad I could use the time to be better prepared for projects during the semesters.”

Pursuing a Passion for Submersible Robotics

“This summer coming out of freshman year at college I was not sure what I wanted to do so I reached out to Olin faculty to try and get some research experience,” said Zoie. “I choose to reach out to Professor Dusek because I have an interest in designing submersible robotics. I did robotics teams, clubs and activities in high school and was looking for a way to continue that passion in college.”

A close-up image of a submersible robot - with wires and different components hanging down and visible.

A close-up, inside view of part of the team's robot. Photo by Leise Jones.

Zoie has been involved with most mechanical aspects of the robot’s design this summer. “I have been working on modeling the whole robot’s layout in SolidWorks assemblies. My team has been working together to design and manufacture laser cut parts for the skeleton structure that holds our battery storage pressure hulls together, along with 3D fixtures for the electronics pressure hulls and electronics held within.”

After enrolling at Olin as a first-year last fall, Zoie notes she didn’t get the chance to meet many of the faculty or upperclassmen during the previous school year because of the hybrid residential/remote model Olin adopted during the pandemic. “This summer was a good opportunity for me to get a sense of the Olin community,” she says. Zoie was also able to learn how to use may new tools in the shop. “I was excited to get laser cutter trained and to have a reason to use the equipment for my research project.”