Biochem student takes the plunge into robotics


Amanda Burgoon Skelton and her robot Model N

During her time at Purdue, Amanda Burgoon Skelton has been able to pursue her two academic passions – Biochemistry and engineering.

In the classroom and laboratory, the senior pursues biochemistry within the Department of Biological Sciences but at home, you can find her building robots as part of the Purdue Remotely Operated Vehicle team. The Bloomington, Ind., native is also a member of the Purdue chapter of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

“It just happens to be what I do outside of biochemistry and reading medical journals: I really love engineering from a hands-on standpoint,” Skelton said.

Skelton is the only College of Science student on the 11-person Remotely Operated Vehicle team, which competes annually at international competitions. In July, the team placed 17th in a Marine Advanced Technology Education event in Seattle that saw teams from as far away as Russia, China, Singapore and Taiwan vie for the best underwater robot. The task of the competition was to have teams’ machines be able to monitor and maintain tectonic plate network sensors on the Northwest Pacific Ocean floor. The team finished second at the MATE competition in 2012 for its PotaTOS – Purdue Offshore Tanker Assessment and Tactical Operations Submersible – which was designed to look for oil leakage from World War II shipwrecks.

Skelton and her team put in several months of work into the design and construction of Model N, a remote controlled and heavy piece of machinery about the size of a lawnmower. The robot swims through water with the aid of remote control via laptop computer and Xbox controller.  Research Machining Services in the Purdue Discovery Park machined all of the aluminum parts and tapped holes while Skelton designed Model N’s metal parts in SolidWorks, 3D design computer software.

Model N is a play off of their 2013 team name of Edison Submersibles, which was inspired by the Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla innovation rivalry of yesteryear.

Building a robot is a challenge by itself but constructing one that functions underwater increases the difficulty level.

“We wanted that diving bell effect,” Skelton said. “If we were to incur a leak, the air inside the (control) box would act just like the air in a diving bell, pushing the water out so we would get some leakage but it wouldn’t be to the catastrophic level of the entire box filling up and all of our electronics frying.”

A look inside Model N

She continued, “Buoyancy and physics; physics is a real hard one when it comes to making something. It has to be strong. … One hundred PSI is what our pneumatic cylinders had to be rated for. Other things have to be rated for safety. You couldn’t just make this giant death box and toss it in the water because divers aren’t going to like that.”

Skelton got hooked on robotics during her years at Bloomington High School South. Her roommate, Purdue Computer Engineering student Nick Molo, introduced her to the ROV team and the Purdue IEEE chapter.

“(My high school has) a solar team. It’s a solar racecar and a solar bike team,” Skelton said. “That is all student built from the ground up. … We also have multiple robotics teams. … We had a lot that put us far ahead other incoming freshmen. I can’t rave enough how lucky I was to go to such a high school.”

Skelton’s biochemistry expertise came into play a little bit during ROV’s construction phase.

“Working with the epoxies is straight up materials chemistry,” she said. “It does help to understand chemically how things cure, what things I can bind together with the epoxy.”

While placing 17th, Skelton and Edison Submersibles shared the contest’s MVP award. Skelton said judges admired her team’s tech report, Gantt chart and display poster, a requirement for every team, as well as their presentation. Teams must convince the judges why they should “buy” their robot design. It was the first time in the competition that the MVP award went to an entire team instead of an individual student.

The Judges' Choice Award allows Skelton and her team to go to the 2014 Underwater Intervention conference, which is hosted by the Association of Diving Contractors International and the ROV Committee of the Marine Technology Society and slated for Feb. 11 to 13 in New Orleans.

While finding success building robots, Skelton still considers herself a biochemist – just not your average one.

“I’m not normal by any means,” Skelton laughed. “I’m not something you would expect from a biochemist.”

Model N's sponsors

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