The Michigan Engineer News Center

Ship design prize goes to space research vessel, Oceanus

The senior capstone final ship design project is a long-held rite of passage for Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering students, but this year when COVID changed the status quo, Associate Professor Matthew Collette and his NA 475 students were able to adjust quickly and create a new way to preserve an old tradition| Medium Read
EnlargeTeam Titan members
IMAGE:  Team Titan Orin Kierczynski, Charles Schertzing, Maggie Stagner, August Sturm, Candace Wiwel

Each year, NA475 student groups are charged to design theoretical but practical cutting-edge vessels as their capstone project. A difficult task under the best of circumstances, this year’s switch to distance learning proved especially trying. But using a variety of technologies, the traditional method of in-person presentation was adapted to accommodate the reality of trying to complete course requirements and graduate from across the globe. Using prerecorded video capture, video teleconferencing tools, and virtual presentation software, teams were able to convert their final design presentations into a fully virtual experience. 

“The students showed great adaptability this year,” explains Collette, “and while the process was more difficult owing to communication and software challenges, they preserved to get very good concept designs out at the end of the course.”

Team designs included an arctic containership for exploring the new trade routes created by polar melt; a crewless roll-on/roll-off containership; a Coast Guard Cutter and ice breaker; and a wind turbine repair vessel. 

EnlargeOceanus: An Autonomous Space Research Vessel
IMAGE:  Oceanus: An Autonomous Space Research Vessel to Explore the Hydrocarbon Seas of Saturn’s Moon Titan

Yet, Team Titan of Orin Kierczynski, Charles Schertzing, Maggie Stagner, August Sturm, and Candace Wiwel was ultimately named the winner of the 2020 Ackles Design Prize for their concept of Oceanus; an autonomous space research vessel for exploring the hydrocarbon seas of Saturn’s moon, Titan. The design includes major self-righting hull capabilities, autonomous navigation, direct-to-Earth communication, mapping lake properties, and bathymetry.

“We are very honored to have been selected for the Ackles award,” says Team Titan member, Candace Wiwel, “We took a risk by pursuing an unconventional design, and we are happy to see that it was well-received.”

The Ackles Design Prize is awarded every year in recognition of a gift made by the estate of Burlin “Harry” and Norma Ackles towards supporting the capstone design experience in the NAME department. Harry Ackles was a proud alumnus of the University of Michigan. Boats were always a passion in his life and he built a cottage on Harsens Island so he could build boats, explore the rivers, and watch the freighters go by. Every year our student capstone designs are presented orally to our department advisory board. The three teams the advisory board rates highest are eligible to win the Ackles award. The final selection from these three is made by team scores on the final technical report. 

“We started thinking about our senior design sophomore year,” says Team Titan. “We wanted to do something that would test our abilities as naval architects but also the realm of what’s possible. We’ll most likely be working with traditional ships for the remainder of our professional lives, so we really wanted to find a project that’s never been done before, and I think we accomplished that. We had a lot of challenges with our design stemming from the difference in gravity and fluid properties. We really had to take a step back and look at more first principle equations and concepts to determine if it would be feasible to use a specific design tool or chart.”

This is the first year that a team has chosen to design a vessel for purposes beyond our home planet and even led Collette to re-thinking the entire course requirements for grading.

In the end, their daring approach and creative thinking paid off and impressed both faculty and industry leaders who attended the final presentations virtually.

However, the switch was not without challenges and required a good amount of adjustment from the teams.

We took a risk by pursuing an unconventional design.Candace Wiwel, Team Titan

“The most prominent challenge was definitely group communication,” says Wiwel. “Before the change, we saw each other every day and could easily update each other between classes. Without those daily interactions, we had to put a lot more emphasis on personal responsibilities and schedule more purposeful and structured meetings. Nearing the end of the project, group communication tools were heavily utilized to constantly give group updates to best synthesize individual aspects and produce a coherent design and presentation.”

  • Dimitri: Arctic Containership
    Dimitri: Arctic Containership
  • USCG Big Ten Class Cutter
    USCG Big Ten Class Cutter Ice Breaker and Buoy Tender; Wolverine
  • Oceanus; SRV for exploring the seas of Titan
    Oceanus; SRV for exploring the seas of Titan
  • The Switchblade
    Switchblade, offshore wind operation and heavy maintenance vessel
  • MV Instinctive
    M/V Instinctive, a crewless roll-on/roll-off LNG containership
Team Titan members
Oceanus: An Autonomous Space Research Vessel
Portrait of Nicole Panyard


Nicole Frawley-Panyard
Marketing Communications Specialist

Naval Architecture & Marine Engineering

(734) 936-0567

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