Inside a building along Technology Drive, a massive tank holds almost 400,000 gallons of water at a constant temperature of 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Measuring 50 feet across and 25 feet deep, the Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility in the university’s Space Systems Laboratory can simulate the microgravity of space. The tank, which holds nearly 20 times the amount of water in a typical 30-by-15-foot home swimming pool, has been a flagship feature for the aerospace engineering program since its completion in 1992.
The facility is one of two operational neutral buoyancy pools in the U.S. — the other is at the Johnson Space Center in Houston — and is the only one in the world located on a college campus. It gives students the opportunity to test underwater robotics and gain engineering experience in a way that other colleges cannot offer, facility director Dave Akin said. “A lot of people say that the tank was a deciding factor in their choosing to come to school here,” Akin said.
The location has carried out robotics-servicing projects for nearby Goddard Space Flight Center, Akin said, and it has prompted intercollegiate collaboration because of its unique functionality. Akin once worked on a project in conjunction with Arizona State University and NASA that required robotics testing in the desert.
This facility is far smaller than the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Texas — there is a difference of nearly 6 million gallons of water — which makes it more appealing to NASA, Akin said. “We don’t do operational work; we do basic research,” he said. “Because we do different things, our two facilities complement each other.”
Akin is the principal investigator for projects still housed at the NBRF such as SAMURAI, a machine that can dive 6,000 meters under ice in the Arctic Ocean, and EUCLID, a free-flight underwater robot used to simulate space-bound vehicles.
Josh Pugh, a junior mechanical engineering major, designed and manufactured the electrical housing for EUCLID. Pugh started working at the facility through Robotics @ Maryland, a student organization that works on creating autonomous underwater machines. “Sometimes I think it’s hard to get hands-on opportunities at a university this big,” said Pugh, president of Robotics @ Maryland. “It was a lot of fun, so I stuck around.”
Every year, Robotics @ Maryland brings a robot to San Diego for the AUVSI and ONR International RoboSub Competition, an event that challenges teams to complete missions underwater. Since 2007 — the first time the group participated — the team has placed in the top 10 out of about 30 groups every year, Pugh said. Earlier this year, they placed fourth and won $1,000 in prize money. “We are very unique in that we’re the only school in the competition that can test our robots whenever we want,” Pugh said.
Before attending this university, Pugh said he first saw the neutral buoyancy tank during an open-house visit and it stood out to him. Akin called it “a prime tourist attraction on campus” and said it draws more than 100 visits every year.
Pugh, who works as an employee at the facility, explained that he was unsure of what kind of engineering he planned to pursue before spending time at the lab. “It’s kind of made more apparent what I want to do,” he said. “This is what it’s like doing the work, robotic engineering in the real world. I love it.”
Nick Limparis, a sixth-year doctorate student in aerospace engineering, noted a similar impact from the facility. When he first became involved with the lab in spring 2005 as a junior undergraduate student, he was an electrical engineering major with a penchant for robotics.
Limparis helped found Robotics @ Maryland and said the Space Systems Laboratory offered the organization facility space because of a desire for more underwater robotics research. He stressed the value of the tank for its location on the campus of a public institution.
“Where else in the world can you become an aquarium diver and work with people in space suits on extreme environment robotics?” Limparis said. “Nowhere. This is the only facility of its kind where an undergrad can walk in and do that.”