Growing up in India, Mechatronic Systems Engineering student Ginelle Nazareth aspired to follow in her engineer father's footsteps, watching in awe as he fixed broken appliances in their home. “His approach was always very methodical,” she says. “To an outsider it seems amazing; almost magical, but then you realize it’s just simple, logical steps.”
Fast-forward a decade, and Nazareth is applying the same logic in a co-op placement with International Submarine Engineering, a company that designs, builds and integrates high-tech submersible vehicles.
During her first eight months on the job, Nazareth was developing control system software for a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). “It’s essentially an underwater frame fitted with sensors, thrusters and mechanical arms,” she explains. “The frame is attached to an ‘umbilical’ cable that comes up to a shipping container on the surface; power and signals are both transmitted through the cable.”
Inside the shipping container is “mission control,” a room filled with computers from where technicians control the underwater vehicle. “You have a joystick and you can move the vehicle forwards or backwards; it’s like playing a video game, but it’s real life,” says Nazareth. The vehicle can perform underwater tasks considered too dangerous for divers, such as maintaining underwater oil pipes.
Usually, the software that controls the movement of the vehicle is modified from a previous system, explains Nazareth. “In this particular case it was a refit, so the physical system was as old as I am; it was built in 1992.” Nazareth was tasked with modifying code from a newer machine to update the older physical system’s software.
This semester, Nazareth wrote two manuals for an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). “They are infinitely more complicated than ROVs,” she says. Since there was little existing documentation for the vehicle’s new components and functionality, Nazareth worked from the ground-level up, speaking directly to people who worked on the project and analyzing the code to understand how the system operates.
“I discovered that I actually really enjoyed this – I even had the opportunity to see the vehicles work in sea trials, where the system is tested in the water,” she says. Now, she is working on a user interface for surface vehicles used for offshore seismic surveys. It’s complex work, but Nazareth keeps her father’s methodical, logical problem-solving skills top-of-mind.
“The most difficult part of modifying the ROV’s software was keeping track of the changes: it’s the sheer magnitude of a project where there are 100 or so symbolic code drawings to work through and change,” she says.
“If you’d told me at the start of my co-op term that I was going to modify an ROV’s software by myself, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I did it, and I’m very proud of that.”