Team S.O.N.I.A - The future of an autonomous underwater vehicle

When it comes to fueling the future of technology,  you’re only as good as your team. It’s always a challenge when you lose talent — even if they relocate to an office just down the hall. “They threw me a going away party,” laughs Emilie Demers-Morin, a 24-year-old electrical engineering student at École de technologie supérieure in Montreal, Quebec. “And I’m like, ‘But I’m only going away to the next door down.’”

While on the surface Demers-Morin and her team are just a student engineering club, but they are actually at the very forefront of underwater innovation. The future of mapping, military exploration and subaqueous transport could all be drastically transformed by their work. Funnily enough, Demers-Morin started her quest for ingenious design solutions just down the hall at a different club altogether.

In September of 2016, Demers-Morin joined Chinook, an engineering club at her university that designs, builds and races wind-powered cars in the Netherlands. After a year of organizing conferences and events for the team, she wanted to advance her engineering skills and decided to join Système d'opération nautique intelligent et autonome, or team S.O.N.I.A.

Established in 1999, team S.O.N.I.A has designed and engineered eight Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). At its most basic, an AUV is an intelligent machine that can perform a myriad of jobs in underwater environments. The sub enables sonar location, distance calculation and accurate positioning. All these parameters are then used simultaneously to achieve various tasks such as identifying an object or shooting a torpedo at a precise location.

Until recently, AUVs have only been used for a relatively limited number of tasks, due to technological restraints. However, with the development of more advanced processing capabilities and high-yield power supplies, AUVs are now being used for more and more applications. From making detailed maps of the ocean floor to towing packages underwater, the possibilities are constantly evolving.

Team S.O.N.I.A consists of students from mechanical, engineering and software programs whose goal is to compete each year at RoboSub, an international competition during which the students’ robotic submarines compete as they perform a difficult series of visual and acoustic-based tasks. The team last took home 1st-place back in 2011, and have been hungry to reclaim the gold since. As Demers-Morin just joined the team, the upcoming competition held in San Diego, California will be her first.

“It’s a laboratory for young engineering minds to hone their skills,” says Demers-Morin. “As opposed to other clubs, where you might just focus on the mechanical side of things, S.O.N.I.A combines AI, machine learning, electrical and software engineering.”

Team S.O.N.I.A feels strongly that knowledge is best acquired through hands-on experience and collaboration and their mission is to offer an educational environment for everyone to advance the field of robotics. Hence, all of their work is open-source on GitHub.

“Many companies, including the army, use AUVS to conduct research in the ocean,” says Demers-Morin. “They are capable of exploring deep waters, taking samples or providing visibility for underwater construction. Because our work is open-source, anyone is able to download it and benefit from our designs.”

Demers-Morin’s team is the only one utilizing a unique cross shape for their AUV, an innovative design approach which makes it easier to navigate and perform tasks. Using a combination of SOLIDWORKS, Linux and Computer Numerical Control (CNC), the team links their ThinkPad to the sub during all tests. It gives them an excellent bird’s-eye view to see telemetry, thruster capacity, battery status and anything else the AUV is viewing through its dual cameras. During test runs, the device has to accurately respond to both visual and acoustic-based tasks, and their ThinkPad makes it easy to collect and respond to this data in real-time.

“It sounds simple, but we chose ThinkPads for one reason: everything always works,” says Demers-Morin. “On test days, we never have to think, ‘Is it going to work tonight? Will it need repair?’ When you’re testing, having peace of mind helps a lot.”

Demers-Morin is not alone in her preferred choice of technology. “I use ThinkPads for all of my work related to AUVs,” adds Olivier Lavoie, the software team lead. “From coding to algorithm development to simulations, the list goes on and on.”

There is no time to worry if your technology is going to work. The day can start as early as 6 a.m., the team will have a breakfast meeting together. Over cups of coffee and fresh pastries, they will decide what they need to examine that day. It could be the hydrophones, the thrusters, torpedoes or the droppers. First, they’ll perform a dry test to see if everything is working. Demers-Morin might sneak in some last-minute soldering, triple-checking that the batteries are in order. Once at the pool, they have two tables of coders working on ThinkPads while the submarine is in the water. In addition, divers are in the pool to provide any hands-on assistance. By the time they finish testing, making adjustments and return everything to the university, it can be as late as midnight.

“In my opinion, the best thing about S.O.N.I.A is how often we test,” says Demers-Morin. “I love the trial and error aspect, and I’m constantly aware of what I can do to make it better. I think, ‘Oh it’s launching, but launching slightly too fast.’”

Observing the synergy of team S.O.N.I.A, it becomes immediately clear they have an amazing bond. Closer to a family than a student club, half of the team plays soccer together. And if it’s not too late, the team will often go out for drinks after testing.

“Beyond all the technical innovation, my favorite thing about this team is the chemistry,” says Lavoie. The 23-year-old junior has been part of the team for a full year now. Echoing Demers-Morin’s sentiments, he believes it’s the club’s unbreakable bond that will set them apart come race time.

At the end of the day, S.O.N.I.A is a student club and Demers-Morin is realistic about the amount of funding available for their project. But just because they don’t boast a high budget, that doesn’t mean their designs can’t make big changes in the real world.

“We got a call a while ago that a young boy had disappeared in a river,” she says. “The temperature was too cold for any divers to go in. They called us to inquire about our technology and how it could be used in the future for search and rescue. We would need more funding to be able to pursue that — but we have the right designs to back it up.”

As for the future, Demers-Morin has big plans beyond the RoboSub competition. Electrical engineering is actually her second degree — the first is in psychology. Ultimately, she wants to combine these two fields to create innovative technologies like cochlear implants and vision-assisting tools, especially in emerging countries where access to technology is scarcer.

“The people in medicine understand the brain but not necessarily the technology, and the people in engineering have the code but don’t necessarily know how to use it,” she says. “Whether it’s for robotics competitions or helping people experience the world in new ways, I want to be the link between the brain and the machine.”


Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories Program.