May 2, 2011

Given that the color of aircraft “black boxes” are usually bright red or orange, to describe these devices as black is ironic. Yet, “black box” or “box of tricks,” as it is commonly called, is the perfect placeholder term for these “whatchamacallits.”

During a plane crash, an aircraft ejects a “black box,” an electronic device that records specific aircraft performance measures, such as time, pressure altitude and air speed, as well as pilots’ conversations in the cockpit. These recordings reveal details of the events preceding an accident, providing important clues about the cause of the crash. 

Applying the same theme to their senior Capstone Design project, LSU mechanical and electrical engineering students are constructing the subsea version of an aircraft’s “black box.” The team is designing and building a “black box” system for blowout preventers that will operate at depths of up to 15,000 feet below the sea’s surface. A blowout preventer is a large valve mounted at the top of a well during subsea drilling operations. In other words, it is a safety device used to regulate the flow and pressure of oil or gas.

The team is constructing a system in which a data capsule will be ejected in the event that the blowout preventer loses power. The data capsule will contain drilling information, such as the well’s pressure, temperature and fluid levels.    

“In the event of an accident or the blowout preventer loses power, engineers will be able to retrieve the data capsule to see what happened last,” said team captain Leonard Johnson, senior, mechanical engineering and a native of Galvez, La. “From there, they’ll be able to backtrack and determine the events that occurred.”

In light of last year’s Gulf Coast oil spill, Johnson said the team’s project, sponsored by Cameron International, a manufacturer of blowout preventers, is very relevant. A failed blowout preventer was a key factor in the spill and its aftermath.

“This system actually has the opportunity to be put into real use in the industry, which I think is really cool,” said Johnson.

Group members include the following senior, mechanical engineering students: Leonard Johnson, Jace Boudreaux (Prairieville, La.), Joshua Cusimano (Metairie, La.), Allan McIlwain (British Columbia, Canada), Taylor Morris (Baton Rouge, La.), Ifeanyi Okoro (Imo, Nigeria) and Quentin Yougoubare (Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire); and the following senior, computer engineering students: Cory Curson and Robert Graves.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME) will host the ME 4202 Capstone Design annual seminar presentation May 4-5 in the Frank Walk Design Presentation Room, 140 ELAB. ME undergraduates worked throughout two semesters on a design project of their choice. Projects are judged by a design panel consisting of local industry leaders and LSU faculty and alumni.

All ME faculty members, project sponsors, faculty advisors, alumni, graduate students, ME undergraduates and the general public are invited to this event each year. To obtain information for next year’s event, submit an area for research, or to become a judge or sponsor, please contact Larry Dufour at ldufour@lsu.edu or Dimitris Nikitopoulos at medimi@lsu.edu. 

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