Short battery life has thus far limited autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)—a problem engineers have grappled with extensively. But in an early capstone project within Beaver Works, a joint venture of Lincoln Laboratory and the School of Engineering, MIT students proposed a solution. They came up with innovative approaches to using gallium to jump-start a fairly violent aluminum-water reaction that would generate hydrogen and heat.
For Beaver Works director Robert Shin ’77, SM ’80, PhD ’84, the students’ relative lack of experience was precisely what led to an unexpected insight. “If I had asked someone at Lincoln Lab, they would have told me all the reasons why this approach wouldn’t work. They have the experience; the work has been done. But students said, ‘This is interesting,’ and kept poking at it and came up with three different ways to solve the problem.”
Shin, who also heads the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance and Tactical Systems Division at Lincoln Lab, had just that kind of synergy in mind when he began pushing for a closer connection between the Lexington, Massachusetts–based lab and the MIT campus. Beaver Works, a skunkworks-style, high-energy center that opened in 2013, is the culmination of a five-year effort to create a hands-on space for Lincoln Lab engineers, faculty, and students to collaborate on real-world problems.
In addition to individual R&D opportunities, capstone projects (executed within MIT coursework) allow students to follow an idea from design to prototype to testing. Recent projects have included the aluminum-powered AUV; an aluminum-fueled car (BMW donated a model for modification); and an airborne platform with roughly five days of endurance (which can provide emergency cell towers in disaster areas).
“There’s strong sponsor involvement, and the students can feel it,” notes Shin. “Students get excited about working on a project someone really cares about. They say they feel like this is real—because it is real.”