Capstone team has designs on helping Omaha zoo monitor its stingrays

Capstone team has designs on helping Omaha zoo monitor its stingrays

Calendar Icon Apr 20, 2016      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed RSS

A team of UNL electrical and computer engineers is developing a monitoring system that the Henry Doorly Zoo would use to help monitor its stingrays.
A team of UNL electrical and computer engineers is developing a monitoring system that the Henry Doorly Zoo would use to help monitor its stingrays.
Some senior engineering capstone teams have projects they are assigned and others must find their own projects; sometimes clients have a need for engineering help.

When a team of UNL electrical and computer engineering students on the Omaha campus began brainstorming ideas for their project, the idea of a high-tech fishing expedition led to a huge catch – working with the Henry Doorly Zoo developing a aquatics tank monitoring system that would first be used to track the living conditions for its stingrays.

The idea for the project began with a suggestion from Troy Green, the team's software engineer, who had difficulty with a saltwater tank for his seahorses.

"It's not up and running now – the water got bad. That gave me an idea to have some sort of a sensor in the tank to monitor it and alert me when things were going bad," Green said. "Then we needed some kind of business or somebody to endorse us so that we could get the sensors, because they're expensive. We thought of who might be interested and one of the ideas was the zoo. "

A meeting with Mitch Carl, the zoo's curator of aquatics. A meeting was arranged in the fall of 2015 and the students pitched their idea.

"We sold ourselves in every area. We said we want to do something with your tanks, with marine life," said Ryan Durr, the team's resources manager. "They have pretty high-quality systems there. So he thought long and hard and came up with the idea of a monitoring system for the two backup tanks."

The zoo has a monitoring system for its touch tank at Stingray Beach. That exhibit has a monitoring system that alerts Carl and other zoo staff when dissolved oxygen levels, flow or water temperatures are outside of set parameters.

But the backup tanks used primarily to house the stingrays indoors during colder months weren't equipped with a similar monitoring system. Carl said the zoo had already considered adding monitoring systems to the indoor holding tanks after Chicago's Brookfield Zoo lost all 54 of its stingrays in July 2015 when the dissolved oxygen levels in their tanks dropped briefly.

"It's a big deal because things in aquatics can go from good to bad very, very quickly," Carl said. "Systems that monitor some of the key elements that keep these animals alive have to make sure notifications get out quickly, in a timely manner, and that you can do something about it before bad stuff happens.

"They took it from there, as far as what they could do for us, and we've been working back and forth ever since."

It was decided the system would monitor many things – water flow, oxygen levels, and temperature among them – and would allow the zoo to customize the parameters for which alert warnings would be sent and who would receive them.

The student team members all said this experience has helped them expand on what they had learned in their classrooms.

"I've taken a couple of classes, but they haven't been quite as hands-on," said Heath Gress, the team's systems manager. "I'm an electronics engineering major and was more into hardware – AC/DC circuits and things like that – before we started this project, but this required me learning language skills, both in communicating with the team and in programming this system."

Hardware engineer Zeyang Cai said the interpersonal communications required on a project was also important to his development.

"I did a hardware design, but I haven't learned PCB development," Cai said. "But the other big thing I learned is project management. It's a new experience learning to communicate effectively with my teammates and a client on how the project goes."

When they join 57 other teams in presenting capstone projects at the college's Senior Design Showcase at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on April 22, the monitoring system for the stingray tanks won't be ready, but it will be close to complete.

The team will still have two more weeks before the system is delivered to Carl and the zoo.

Carl said the Henry Doorly Zoo will have fifteen of its rays in the touch tank when it opens Stingray Beach this weekend. The other 30 to 35 rays will be added when the zoo begins its summer schedule May 15.

Inspired by Herb Detloff, associate professor of practice in electrical and computer engineering and teacher of the senior design capstone course in Omaha, the team will take the next few weeks to hopefully make its product even better.

"We have some time to completely perfect the design, debug the software and fine tune it," Gress said. "I want to make it better if we can. It's like Detloff always tells us – every time we hit a wall, we should rethink our design in ways we can improve it. That's what we'll be doing."