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Cadet Engineers' Capstone Projects Aim to Tackle Real-World Problems
By Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall

The campus of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., is sprinkled with stately, historical buildings. Cadets march to and from classes in immaculate uniforms, much as they have here since the 1930s. On this steep bank of the Thames River, old and new blend seamlessly as inside these brick halls, young men and women are laboring at the forefront of technology and engineering innovation.

Mechanical and electrical engineering majors at the Academy aim to bridge functional gaps or needs in the greater Coast Guard through a variety of large-scale projects. These projects, known as the capstone projects, are the culmination of several years of cadet research and development.

One capstone project that has been demanding attention is the creation of a collapsible rescue basket. This project is the work of First Class Cadets Chris Varrichio, Jon Sapundjieff, Geoff Pringle and Jake Naum.

Many are familiar with the bulky, steel rescue baskets that are lowered from Coast Guard helicopters during search and rescue operations. The baskets are necessary in order to retrieve a survivor from the water.

The issue with the current basket is the considerable amount of valuable space it occupies inside the helicopter's cabin when not in use. It is often filled with gear during flight, which means it must be emptied prior to rescue operations. This increases the time required to perform such operations; time that could mean the difference between life or death for a survivor.

The new basket design would decrease storage space by 40 percent. The time required to ready the basket for use would also be reduced, as in its collapsed state it would not be filled with gear. The new basket would enable crews to more efficiently perform their duties.

When a basket is being used to hoist a survivor into a hovering helicopter, the strength requirements of that basket will naturally be strict. To test the collapsible basket prototype, cadets loaded it with 600 pounds of weight and, using a large crane inside the Academy's power laboratory, repeatedly lifted and lowered the basket. Then they suspended the basket, still loaded with the weight, a few feet off the ground for thirty minutes. These tests ensure that the basket would not fail under the stress of an actual search and rescue case.

Another example of the ingenuity of the capstone projects is the creation of a portable water purification system. The team, comprised of First Class Cadets Mike Beaupre, Ian Sankey, Colin Sykes, Josh Villafane, Connor Stevens, and Kevin Wissner, set out to create a unit that could be delivered by sea, land, or air to devastated areas to provide clean water to disaster victims. "This was interesting to me and the others in the group due to its humanitarian aspects," said Sankey. "Two of us went to Haiti last spring and saw first-hand the effects of dirty water on a community."

Not only is this project beneficial to those it would potentially serve, but it challenges the cadets on multiple levels.

"With the water purification system, the intent was to expose the cadets to engineering designs that are humanitarian in nature and multidisciplinary in scope," said Dr. Alex Tsai, the project team's faculty advisor. "This design merges mechanical and electrical systems in a fully portable enclosure, which meets the specifications for consumable clean water."

The unit uses solar energy to pump dirty water into the unit, which then passes through several filters and membranes, eventually exiting the unit devoid of any salt or harmful bacteria. The unit can successfully create 30 gallons of water in 12 hours; water that meets the World Health Organization's standards for clean, potable water.

These types of projects do not only potentially benefit the Coast Guard as a whole, but they are invaluable in developing each cadet's engineering knowledge and skill.

"The cadets achieve an understanding of the complexities behind the design, construction and testing phase of a project," said Tsai. "They are exposed to the facets that real-world engineers are exposed to and gain valuable insight into what is expected of them under the time and specific constraints outlined, as they become integral members of the engineering profession."

Though not all of these projects are put into use throughout the Coast Guard, they do spark the inspiration for others to pick up where the cadets leave off. The capstone projects also bring awareness to the need for specific solutions that will enable the Coast Guard to perform ever more successfully and efficiently. Perhaps the projects' most valuable result however, is further developing and challenging the agile minds of those that will soon depart these brick halls to become leaders and innovators in the U.S. Coast Guard.