SONIA team: the future of autonomous underwater vehicles

Original author: Rahil Arora
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When it comes to shaping the future of technology, your success depends entirely on your team. The loss of a talented specialist is always a problem, even if he moved to the next office right along the corridor. “They gave me a farewell party,” laughs Emily Demers-Maureen, a 24-year-old student at the École de technologie supérieure in Montreal, Prov. Quebec (Canada), the future electrical engineer. “And I thought: but I’m leaving only to the next office.”

Although at first glance Emily Demers-Morin and her team are just a student technical club, they are actually at the forefront of “underwater” innovations. The future of cartography, military intelligence and underwater transport can drastically transform as a result of their work. Oddly enough, Emily Demers-Maureen began to search for brilliant design solutions next door, in a completely different club.

In September 2016, she came to Chinook, an engineering and technical club at her university that develops, builds wind-powered cars in the Netherlands and arranges their competitions. After a year of organizing and holding conferences and events for her team, Emily wanted to upgrade her technical skills and decided to join Système d'opération nautique intelligent et autonome - or, for short, the SONIA team

Founded in 1999, the SONIA team developed and designed eight autonomous underwater vehicles (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, AUV). Speaking very generally, AUV is an intelligent machine that can perform many jobs in an underwater environment. It is able to determine its location, use sonar, perform distance calculations and accurate positioning. All these parameters are then used simultaneously for a variety of tasks, such as identifying an object or launching a torpedo at the exact location.

Until recently, due to its technological limitations, AUV was used to solve only a relatively limited number of tasks. However, with the development of processor technology and the creation of more capacious power sources, AUV is now being used in an increasing number of applications, from creating detailed maps of the ocean floor to towing underwater, and these possibilities are constantly evolving.

The SONIA team consists of students of various specialties - future mechanics, engineers and programmers. Their goal is to participate annually in an international competition where student submarines-robots compete with each other in a complex series of visual and acoustic tasks. This team took 1st place in 2011 and since then has been struggling to regain the gold. The upcoming contest in San Diego, California, will be the first for Emily Demers-Maureen since she joined this team.

“This is a lab for young engineers that helps them sharpen their minds and their skills,” says Emily Demers-Maureen. “Unlike other clubs, where you can just focus on the mechanical side of things, SONIA combines artificial intelligence, machine learning, electrical engineering, and software development.”
The SONIA team is firmly convinced that knowledge is best obtained through practical experience and collaboration, teamwork, and its mission is to offer everyone an educational environment for improvement in the field of robotics. Accordingly, all of their work is open source software laid out on GitHub.

“Many companies and the military use AUV for research in the ocean,” says Emily Demers-Morin. “These devices are capable of conducting deep-sea research, taking samples or controlling work during underwater construction.” Since our development is open source software, anyone can download them and use our projects. ”

Emily's team is the only one who uses the unique form of her AUV, an innovative design approach that simplifies navigation and task execution. During all the tests, using a combination of SOLIDWORKS software, Linux OS and numerical control (Computer Numerical Control, CNC), she connects her ThinkPad with an underwater vehicle. This gives a complete overall picture, allows you to receive telemetry, see engine power, battery status and everything else, including what AUV shows through its dual cameras. During test runs, the device must perform both visual and acoustic tasks accurately, and the ThinkPad makes it easy to gather information and respond to this data in real time.

“It sounds simple, but we chose ThinkPad notebooks for one good reason: everything always works,” says Emily Demers-Maureen. - And in the days of the tests we will not have to think: will it work tonight? Do you need a repair? When you are testing something, inner confidence and calm help a lot. ”

Emily Demers-Maureen is not alone in her choice of technology. “I use ThinkPad computers in all of my work related to AUV,” adds Olivier Lavoie, software development manager. “From coding to algorithm development and modeling, the list goes on and on.”

There is simply no time to think about whether the equipment will fail. The working day may begin at 6 am, when the team is going to have breakfast together. Over a cup of coffee with fresh pastries, it is decided that you need to explore and check that day. It can be hydrophones, engines, torpedoes or other devices. First of all, a “dry” test is conducted to see if everything works. Emily Demers-Maureen can solder something at the last minute, three times checking that the device's batteries are in order. Already in the pool there are two tables for programmers working on the ThinkPad, while the submarine is in the water. In addition, divers in the pool are always on hand to provide any practical help. When specialists finish testing, make adjustments and return everything to the university, it may be after midnight.

“In my opinion, the best thing about SONIA is how often we test our products,” says Emily Demers-Maureen. - I like the process of trial and error, I understand what I can do to improve the result. I think, "Oh, let's go, but not so fast."

Observing the synergy of the SONIA team, it immediately becomes clear that they have an amazing connection. This is rather a family than a student club. Half the team plays football together. And if it's not too late, the team will often go for a cup of coffee after testing.

“In addition to all the technical innovations, what I like about this team is the climate in the team,” says Lavoie. A 23-year-old student has been working in a team for a year now. Echoing Emily's feelings, he believes that the club’s unbreakable bond can only separate them during competitions.

In the end, SONIA is just a student club, and Emily Demers-Maureen does not harbor illusions about the amount of funding available for their project. But, although they cannot boast of a large budget, this does not mean at all that their projects cannot seriously influence the real world.

“Some time ago they called us: the boy disappeared into the river,” she says. - Divers water temperature was too low, and they called us to learn about our technologies and how they can be used in the future for search and rescue. We need more funds to be able to continue working, and we have the necessary projects to get support. ”

As for the future, Emily Demers-Morin has big plans beyond the RoboSub competition. Electrical Engineering - this is her second diploma. The first is a diploma in psychology. Ultimately, she wants to combine these two areas to create innovative technologies, such as ear implants and tools to aid vision, especially in emerging market countries where access to technology is more limited.

“People working in medicine can understand how the mechanisms of the brain function, but they are not always well-versed in technology, and specialists in technology have software, but they don’t necessarily know how to use it,” she says. “Will it help in robotics competitions or will it eventually allow people to explore the world in a new way, but I use my knowledge to communicate between the brain and the machine.” 

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