Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Midshipmen Test Capstone Project in Humanitarian Exercise

By MC2 Tyler Caswell

U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen and faculty members recently joined with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and U.S. Naval War College (NWC) to test and deploy a disaster relief shelter during a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) training exercise at Harold Parker State Park.

As part of the exercise, five midshipmen deployed a ¼ scale model using gridshell technology they had researched and designed for their engineering major capstone senior design course.

Photo by Daniel Scarnecchia

A gridshell is a structure which derives its strength from its double curvature - meaning its surface curves in two different directions, like a dome or tent. Unlike those structures, a gridshell is constructed of a grid or lattice.

"Our capstone project essentially took gridshell technology and adapted it for use in a HA/DR role," said Midshipman 1st Class Sam Ciocco, lead for the team who called themselves "The Gridshellters."

When gridshell technology is used, which is relatively rare, it's usually in the area of architectural design, said Ciocco.

"Gridshells are not very well utilized or explored, so we did some exploring of our own to figure out how to use its advantages in the unique HA/DR role," he said. "We made great use of the construction method that allows a large structure to be built from the ground, without needing cranes or scaffolding. We used the modular pieces to make transportation and on-site construction easier and more efficient."

The group was led by USNA Mechanical Enginnering Dept. Assistant Professor Samar Malek. She formed the group to explore the capabilities and benefits of gridshell technology in the fast-paced environment.

Malek worked for the last year with personnel at the Naval War College and United Nations on the uses of gridshell technology. Dave Polatty, director of the war college's Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Program, and Michael Marx, senior civil-military coordination advisor for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs visited with the group to present expectations about civilian and military cooperation.

"This helped the team shape the technology to be deployable in a real-world context," said Malek.

Polatty invited the USNA Gridshellters to test the results of their technology at the Harold Parker State Park event. This gave the midshipmen and Malek the opportunity to test if their idea made sense and how well it worked in an HA/DR situation.

The simulation brought together more than 150 volunteers with students from NWC, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations to create a constantly changing environment. Many of the exercise participants had real-world HA/DR experience, and were able to give feedback to the midshipmen.

“We were able to share the technology with others that had been in real-world scenarios, and they gave us great insight that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Malek.

The midshipmen's project was one of the highlights of the event, said Polatty.

"Their project was incredibly well received and added quite a bit to the existing discussions that typically take place regarding shelters in humanitarian emergencies," he said. "I was thrilled to see them get so much positive feedback from humanitarians on areas of the world that their design could be used in."

Photo by Daniel Scarnecchia

The U.S. Military often takes a relief and assistance role in HA/DR zones. The faculty and midshipmen saw the worth of the exercise in giving an experience the young officers have a very real chance of encountering.

"There are so many moving parts and so many different people and organizations trying to help that coordination becomes a huge problem," said Ciocco. Coordination becomes such a vital part in making sure that people actually get the aid they need. Every person and organization brings its own capabilities, its own resources, and its own agenda to a crisis zone. This includes the U.S. military, who can be constrained by policy decisions, the United Nations coordination efforts in the mandated country, and the host country itself.”

The experience from both the simulation and development of the project was challenging, but worth the team's efforts.

"I was very happy with the outcome of our capstone project," said Midshipman 1st Class Michael Daniels-Vassallo. "The design process was frustrating at times but at the end of the day, it was incredibly rewarding."

The Gridshellter team was awarded the Mechanical Engineering Design Award during USNA's Engineering and Weapons Division year-end Awards Ceremony.

For more information about USNA’s Capstone program, visit

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