Elementary, middle and high school students are building their own boats at the Autonomous Boat Summer Camp for Ocean Conservation at CU-ICAR.

Elementary, middle and high school students are building their own boats at the Autonomous Boat Summer Camp for Ocean Conservation at CU-ICAR.
Image Credit: Jacob Dean

GREENVILLE — A boat that drives itself and picks up trash from the ocean? That’s the stuff of science fiction, but it’s reality for a dozen lucky Upstate elementary, middle and high school students who are building their own autonomous boats in a Clemson University summer camp.

The campers are led by automotive engineering professors Srikanth Pilla and Yunyi Jia at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR). Sponsored by Bosch, the Autonomous Boat Summer Camp for Ocean Conservation guides students as they engineer their own small self-driving boats and learn the importance of cleaning the oceans.

Mike McCormick, vice president and technical plant manager at Bosch Rexroth in Fountain Inn, said, “Bosch has always supported programming that combines STEM education with environmental stewardship initiatives and this is a terrific example of that cross-section.”

A boy shows his autonomous boat.

A boy shows his autonomous boat.
Image Credit: Jacob Dean

“Plastic waste is the biggest threat to our oceans,” said Jia. “Animals end up eating these microtoxins and, in turn, die. Or sometimes we end up eating the animals and effectively poison ourselves.”

Jia said the camp is intended to keep students interested in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – but they also get a lot of  ecological and sustainability knowledge.

“While teaching them all sorts of great information on autonomy, we’re using this as an opportunity to also show them that the ocean is worth saving,” he said.

During the camp students are learning about the harms of plastics, the basics of boat building, software coding and, of course, boat autonomy.

A reporter interviews one of the students about her camp experience.

A reporter interviews one of the students about her camp experience.
Image Credit: Jacob Dean

“It’s exciting to work with students of all different ages,” Pilla said. “These younger campers, their minds are wide open. Their creativity has no bounds. It’s truly remarkable. I can honestly say that sometimes they come up with stuff that I end up writing down because it’s that profound. I’d even say we end up learning just as much from them as they do from us.”

Thanks to additional funding from the Bosch Community Fund, the camp builds on a previous 2017 grant supporting an autonomous boat competition among Clemson students at CU-ICAR. In that competition, 71 students were divided into 18 groups that built autonomous boats with cruise control, boundary tracking and collision avoidance using the sensing signal processing, filtering techniques and advanced control methods they learned in class.

According to Jia, it was so well-received by the students that it prompted the professors to get involved for another go-round.

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Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research
The Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) is a 250-acre advanced-technology research campus where university, industry and government organizations collaborate. CU-ICAR offers master’s and Ph.D. programs in automotive engineering and is conducting leading-edge applied research in critical areas, such as advanced product-development strategies, sustainable mobility, intelligent manufacturing systems and advanced materials. CU-ICAR has industrial-scale laboratories and testing equipment in world-class facilities available for commercial use. www.cuicar.com

The Bosch Community Fund
The Bosch Community Fund, a U.S.-based foundation established in September 2011, has awarded more than $13.8 million in grants to various 501(c)(3) organizations and educational institutions. The BCF focuses primarily on the enrichment of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and the advancement of environmental sustainability initiatives.