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Saving the Whales

Whale project groupTypically, one doesn’t equate marine biology with mechanical engineering. And a year ago, recent Ohio Northern University graduates Julie Bing, BSME ’09, Austin Black, BSME ’09, and Alex Johnson, BSME ’09, would not have guessed their engineering educations would lead to the protection of a highly endangered species.

But this is exactly what happened when, in spring 2008, the three seniors turned a marine mammal dilemma into a senior Capstone design project.

The idea for this Capstone project was initiated by the Dean Eric Baumgartner’s brother, Dr. Mark Baumgartner. Mark Baumgartner is a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., where he studies the movements of the North Atlantic Right Whale. Approximately 400 Right Whales still exist today, and marine biologists want to develop a better understanding of their movement patterns so they can implement safety measures to protect them.

Mark Baumgartner developed a “passive” tracking tag, which sticks to the whale using a large suction cup. This is much more humane than the past method of piercing the whale’s skin to keep the tracking equipment attached.

Although this passive tag provided useful information, it often fell off after 30 minutes, so Mark Baumgartner proposed the idea of an “active” suction tag that would use a small pump to maintain suction power for up to three days. Bing, Black and Johnson were tasked with designing and building a prototype of this “active” tracking tag, which came with several design requirements: The tag had to be small, lightweight, waterproof, floatable, streamlined to minimize resistance, simple enough to be reproduced and reusable.

Bing was excited to take on the project and curious to discover how the team could apply its engineering knowledge to a topic that most people would associate with other majors.

By the end of the year, the team had not only overcome these obstacles but also incorporated a series of sensors in the pump to conserve battery life and a timer to shut down the pump after the desired attachment time elapses.

Bing feels that the project was a great opportunity to apply her ONU engineering education. “We were required to pull knowledge from various fields of study, including fluid dynamics, circuits, material science and more. It allowed us to experience the entire design process, such as brainstorming, planning, assembly and testing of a final product.”

On June 9, the Capstone group and Eric Baumgartner traveled to Woods Hole, Mass., to present the final product to Mark Baumgartner and his marine biology team. They gave Mark Baumgartner the information to successfully build more active tags for his studies and collect data that they have never attained before.


Jamienne Scott
Junior communication arts major