Diving into the Past with Modern Technology

November 01, 2017

Sometimes it takes the technology of the future to uncover the relics of the past. An autonomous underwater robot and technology developed by students at Cal Poly and Harvey Mudd College led to a remarkable discovery in the Mediterranean this summer — the remains of a rare World War II plane that went down off the coast of Malta almost 75 years ago.

The wreckage found was of the Fairey Swordfish, a biplane torpedo bomber used by the Royal Navy during World War II.

Student team members, all participants in the International Computer Engineering Experience (ICEX) program, included Cal Poly students Sam Freed, computer science graduate student; Amy Lewis, software engineering senior; and Roslyn Patrick-Sunnes, computer science senior. Their Harvey Mudd counterparts were Jeffrey Rutledge and Jane Wu, joined by a Cal Poly Pomona student, Wentao Yuan. The student research efforts were led and directed by Cal Poly Computer Science Professor Zoë Wood and Harvey Mudd engineering Professor Chris Clark, whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation.

"The discovery is what the ICEX is all about,” said Wood about the program that brings together engineering students from both schools to apply their technical knowledge in an international context and to further their research education.

The research teams collaborated with local marine archaeologists to develop new shipwreck and mapping technology and helped implement it in the field. 

Considering the plane has been about 90 feet under water for seven decades, it’s remarkably well preserved, observed Wood.

“Although the fabric is long gone, the metal structure is still there,” she said. “As a biplane, when it crashed, the upper wing collapsed on the lower wing. It mostly looks like a metal skeleton — very birdlike. There’s a very big engine cowling and its propellers are still intact.”

Those finding have been preserved and richly documented by the students' computer graphics team, which included Lewis and Patrick-Sunnes both also strong swimmers who spent time in the water helping to guide the AUV.“ I was really shocked that there is still so much that's unexplored," said Lewis. "We're told that outer space is the last frontier, but there are unknown wrecks and untold stories just off the coast of a densely populated island. We have so much to learn from our oceans and seas.”

Freed was aboard the research vessel scanning the sea floor when the plane was discovered.

"For me, this project underscored the contributions we can make to the incredibly important field of marine archeology," he said. "Engineering technology is not only advancing how archaeologists identify and collect data on underwater wrecks, it's also helping them share that history and making it come alive."

In November, Lewis and Freed will return to Malta to co-present the ICEX team's research at the International Conference on Aviation, Archaeology and Heritage. 

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Photo caption: Amy Lewis (in the water) helping the team retrieve the AUV off the coast of Malta. 

Related links:

Malta TV report: http://bit.ly/2tQlgik

ICEX Student blog: http://bit.ly/2teRW5A

Tags: csse