Home Education Front Range Community College students win with drone for oil spill response

Front Range Community College students win with drone for oil spill response

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Xavier Cotton and Christian Madraza remember watching videos of oil spilling from the Deepwater Horizon and poisoning the Gulf of Mexico as children.

They also remember how ridiculous it seemed to Dawn to run commercials about decontaminating otters with a few ounces of dish soap in the face of a 210 million gallon oil spill.

Surely there had to be something better to counter the ocean of displaced fossil fuels.

Moving on to an engineering class at Front Range Community College with a teacher tasked with making their freshman project focus on an environmental and sustainable development issue. In between shifts at Amazon warehouses and other youthful demands, Cotton and Madraza watched videos of oil spills on YouTube.

After weeks of tinkering and using a wading pool, a few empty water bottles as flotation devices, and most of Cotton’s own hair, the team created “Orca.”

This is an oil spill drone. It sits on the edge of a plastic boom that surrounds and slowly coils into the floating spill, and absorbs the oil through a hair filter.

An orca acts like a whisker’s bristles in a whale’s mouth. (Not “really” young engineers about killer whales as artificial whales, because they’ve heard it. They follow the Wiki’s explanation of killer whales as ” toothed whale which belong to Art an oceanic dolphin family,” and they know their marketing, as we’re about to find out.)

A working prototype of the Orca oil collection drone is hard at work in the Walmart pool as Front Range Community College students Christian Madraza and Xavier Cotton refine their model. (Photo courtesy of Madrazo and Cotton)

Orca won Front Range Community College’s local engineering competition, and their enthusiastic teachers encouraged them to compete nationally. So they went. And in June, Cotton and Madraza won second prize — with the money hunter — at the National Science Foundation’s annual Community College Innovation Competition. The judges, who first grilled all the teams in a Shark Tank-style atmosphere, called Orca “a new method for cleaning up oil spills that is inexpensive and fast.”

Not to mention that the current solutions are just terrible, Cotton said. The main solutions are incineration, which releases fumes into the environment, and these chemical dispersants, which remain in the ocean, release toxins. There are oil-based sponges that soak up the oil, and then the sponges just fall to the floor and it just litters the oceans to be eaten by all sorts of creatures and creatures. We had to do it.”

Human hair absorbs five times its weight in oil. When Cotton wasn’t enough for the job, they added his dog’s fur. They poured some motor oil into a Walmart kiddie pool, launched a drone the size of a hatch cover, and things went bad. In a good way.

The prize is partly comforted by the fact that Cotton’s hair hasn’t grown back yet.

Person in presentation

Front Range Community College computer science instructor Dianne Rhodes says the pair succeeded in part because they had a good idea, backed it up with serious engineering and modeling work, and spent time overcoming physical challenges and fixing broken parts. But their personalities also had a big impact, Rhodes said.

Doing well at innovation competitions requires interaction, practice in public and a bit of selling, Rhodes said.

“They were very enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. They were able to succinctly formulate their problem. And they weren’t shy, Rhodes said. “They had fun. I like to have fun in my class. I take my job seriously, but I don’t take myself that seriously,” which is what Cotton, 19, and Madrazo, 22, brought with Orca, she said.

“And I never had to tell them to put their phones down. What I thought I would have to do. Because I have to do it in my class. Unfortunately,” she said.

The two engineering students say each presentation was made better by the help of Rhodes, other faculty members and the expert judges of the national competition at the Library of Congress.

“I’ve learned to give your audience just enough to get it,” Cotton said. “And not so much about what we care about, or what we think they should care about. Just let them lead the conversation.”

Rodas said that before one important presentation, the boys came to her and said that they were working on a new technique. They created a graphically fresh poster that everyone agreed was a killer take on their idea, and they wanted their pitch to sound like a scripted but casual conversation between Madraza and Cotton. Rhodes felt nauseous at that sounding very obscene.

“So they went and did it and it was fantastic,” Rhodes said. “And I thought it was a classic example of why you shouldn’t just say no right away before you see it.”

One judge in Washington, DC began talking enthusiastically about the possibilities of patenting and commercialization. Rhodes agrees that Orca may well be a viable product in the future, but for now they plan to “park” the idea and focus on extra school activities. Cotton is set to pursue a four-year degree at the Colorado School of Mines, while Madraza will transfer her credits to the University of Colorado to work in architectural design.

Prototype Orca unmanned aerial vehicle for cleaning up oil spills with an attached oil sampling boom that retracts into a separation float. (Front Range Community College)

“They have a lot on their plate,” Rhodes said.

Like all good engineers and entrepreneurs, the team stuffed their heads with ideas from other innovators in their competition. Madraza picked up the idea for the HIV drug from Santa Monica College, deep in biological engineering, which was very different from the mechanical engineering featured in the other products. Cotton was more excited about the recycling bin, which automatically scans materials dropped into it and sorts or rejects items to be sent elsewhere.

“They did a really good job,” Cotton said. “I’m proud to have finished second behind them.”



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