Making waves: undergraduate tests unmanned systems onboard ship in the Arctic

Chirawat Sanpakit
Chirawat Sanpakit, a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, is pictured aboard the Coast Guard’s Icebreaker HEALY. As part of his internship, Sanpakit tested unmanned systems intended to help the Coast Guard overcome the challenging Arctic environment. (Photo courtesy of Jason Story, U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center).

As part of a 50-person science team, Chirawat Sanpakit spent his summer on the Icebreaker HEALY supporting the Coast Guard Research and Development Center’s annual Arctic Technology Evaluations—an annual program that tests technology intended to help the Coast Guard execute its missions while overcoming the harsh environment and significant distances in the Arctic.

“Included in this program are research and evaluations of autonomous systems, such as the PUMA Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), which was the focus of my work” explained Sanpakit. “To continue on that point, the UAS can be leveraged for search and rescue for mariners lost at sea without risking human operators’ lives,” Sanpakit elaborated. Autonomous systems are machines that can react to their environment and perform tasks by themselves without human intervention.

Sanpakit was a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship program. This program provides undergraduate and graduate students majoring in homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the U.S.

This work contributes to the Coast Guard’s knowledge and will help them operate unmanned systems in the Arctic. These systems come in several different forms with a range of uses, for example UAS can be used for surveillance, marine mammal monitoring, oil spill monitoring, search and rescue operations, and oceanographic research. “I believe that this field has the potential to greatly expand the capabilities of manned assets,” said Sanpakit.

Sanpakit was drawn to the Arctic Operations Support project because it involved evaluations on autonomous systems. It was an ideal match, as Sanpakit is interested in robotics and is pursuing an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Riverside.

In addition to the exciting research, Sanpakit experienced an opportunity of a lifetime. “When you’re conducting research on unmanned systems and all you see is miles of ice in the background, you just feel a sense of awe.”

Sanpakit stated that he just had to “take this opportunity by the horns and run with it” and that is exactly what he did. He gained insight into the field, the ability to interpret data, and a sense of independence; however, he said that “the organization, the communication, and the interoperability required were the biggest takeaways from this internship.”

“I loved every moment of where I was and what I was doing. Sometimes things were hard, and I never made so many mistakes in such a short period of time, but I think that I have never learned so much in such a short period of time either,” said Sanpakit.

Sanpakit plans to recommend this program to others. “Ask as many questions as you can and burn yourself out by making every moment count while you’re in Alaska.”  He also encouraged students to pursue careers in the STEM field. “I know STEM can be intimidating to students, but you can really make a difference and that makes it worth it.”

Back home, Sanpakit will continue to pursue robotics, specifically in Micromouse- a competition where a robot autonomously solves a maze as quickly as possible. In the future, he plans to study robotics in graduate school and work in the aerospace industry.

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.