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Riverhead students excel in engineering challenge

A self-driving boat built by two Riverhead High School seniors earned them a place among the top five contestants in second annual Long Island High School Engineering Design Challenge.

Eighteen-year-old Eric Behr and 17-year-old Yash Patel had to try to solve one of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals for the contest, held at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City in May. The two chose to solve a problem in the environment, specifically water quality and high nitrogen levels, inspired by efforts in the Peconic River and Peconic Estuary.

The two worked under the direction of technology teacher Luke Ferland, who has been a mentor to the boys for the past five years. They built a self-driving boat that senses nitrogen levels and will mark areas in the water where the levels are particularly high. The boat also picks up solid waste on the top of the water, collects data, and will run itself aground if it begins to sink.

Eric said that focusing on the Peconic Estuary in a public affairs course the boys took helped stir up the idea.

“We had a lot of previous research on who maintains the estuary, its significance, the amount of data that they do get and the kind of support they get from the government,” he said. “So we had a lot of background research, and we were really interested in the topic, so we just built off of that and built a solution for it completely.”

The seniors designed the boat using AutoCAD, a computer-aided drafting program. They 3D printed and laser cut the parts used to put together the boat, then programmed it using an Arduino microcontroller and a credit-card sized computer called a Raspberry Pi.

“I am so very proud of Eric and Yash,” Mr. Ferland said in a press release. “Their project appeared unrivaled and their presentation skills were outstanding.”

Mr. Ferland helped the boys obtain all of the materials needed to build the boat, they said. The students have taken courses with him over the course of the past five years, learning about the microcontrollers and computers that they used to create the boat.

“This was our last competition, and Mr. Ferland has been a great mentor for us — he’s been pushing us and we’ve been pushing him,” Yash said.

This is not the first time the team placed in the competition. At last year’s design challenge, the boys built an asteroid-seeking robot that came in first place.

Eric will be majoring in mechanical engineering at SUNY/Stony Brook in the fall, and Yash will attend Boston University majoring in business and minoring in engineering.

Photo caption: Riverhead seniors Eric Behr (left) and Yash Patel built a boat that placed in the top five at a Long Island engineering and design challenge. (Credit: Riverhead Central School District)