Senior Project: Autonomous Water Chemistry Drone

DSC_5837 (1) Senior Liam Cummings has a keen interest in marine science and chemistry, so it’s no surprise that he chose to build a device that can collect important information about the waters surrounding the East of End of Long Island. For his Senior Project, the capstone experience at Ross School, Liam programmed and “hacked together” a small autonomous watercraft that navigates via GPS and logs data about conditions that impact life underwater.


An initial motivation for Liam’s project was curiosity about the water quality of a creek near his home on Shelter Island. “I’m told there used to be life in the creek,” he said, “and I was hoping to find out if there was a cause for the decline.”

To get started, he purchased a small remote-controlled boat, stripped out its transmitter and receiver, and installed an Arduino microcontroller board, which ultimately functioned as the “brain” of the device. As an Innovation Lab @Ross student, Liam had some experience with programming controllers, but the project helped him to become more proficient at coding, with guidance and advice from Urban Reininger, director of Instructional Technology, and Marine Sciences teacher Dr. Jack Szczepanski.


Next, Liam installed and programmed a digital compass and GPS, specific sensors to measure water temperature and pH levels, and an SD card to store the data. One obstacle he encountered was deciphering the GPS data string. “The computer interprets the string as one long word,” he explained, “and it cannot do math with words. I thought I had to find a way to turn the words into numbers, but that was not the case.”

Eventually, he found a solution. He could recall specific data by typing in “GPS.time” or “” “It was pretty much smooth sailing after that,” Liam said.

As a test run, he launched the boat in a body of water just outside the inlet to the creek he was concerned about. The boat collected data as it navigated to preprogrammed waypoints. DSC_5828

Initial findings indicated that the water was slightly alkaline, so Liam plans to conduct additional research to compare these against ideal pH conditions for local sea life. “I have a big interest in ocean acidification,” Liam said. “It may seem minor, but pH level has a huge impact on reefs.”

Liam is looking into ways to improve the boat’s mobility, battery life, and overall productivity. In the near term, he plans to program the waypoints so that the boat collects data in a grid. Adding additional sensors to test for other factors, such as dissolved oxygen and turbidity, is also an option. “Turbidity is particularly important to the health of coral reefs, because they are heavily reliant on photosynthetic organisms,” he said. What he learns could be applied to reefs like the one he explored as part of a Ross School Field Academy trip to Mo’orea last year.


On final reflection, Liam says he believes his Senior Project could potentially be an important research tool for marine scientists. In the meantime, he hopes future Innovation Lab @Ross students will have an opportunity to experiment with the product.

Liam will continue his chemistry studies at Drexel University in the fall, and we wish him success.