Cal Poly Student Researchers Help Locate WWII Wreckage Near Malta

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — A new autonomous underwater vehicle and mapping technology developed by engineering students from Cal Poly and Harvey Mudd College helped lead to the discovery of “historically significant” remains of a missing World War II plane found off the coast of Malta.

The wreckage was of the Fairey Swordfish, a biplane torpedo bomber used by the Royal Navy in the 1930s and during World War II. A small group of Swordfish bombers played a role in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941. These rare planes were an important part of the war efforts in the Mediterranean waters around Malta.

The students’ monthlong summer research project is part of an ongoing program called ICEX (International Computer Engineering Experience) that gives participants the opportunity to apply their technical knowledge in an international context and to further their research education.

“The ICEX team is overjoyed to have helped discover a site of a historically significant plane,” said Zoë Wood, a Cal Poly computer science professor who co-leads the expedition with Harvey Mudd College engineering Professor Christopher Clark.

“We’re truly honored to be a part of the ongoing quest to understand the rich aviation history buried in Malta’s waters as well as assisting in the development of new intelligent search and mapping algorithms for AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles),” Clark said.

Three Cal Poly students (Amy Lewis, software engineering senior; Roslyn Patrick-Sunnes, computer science senior; and Sam Freed, computer science graduate student) and three students (Jeff Rutledge, Jane Wu and Wentao Yuan) from Harvey Mudd College’s Lab for Autonomous and Intelligent Robotics collaborated to plan AUV missions to search for sites, collect and process data and generate 3-D reconstructions of the sites.

“2017 has turned out to be a crucial year for ICEX,” said Timmy Gambin, a collaborating archaeologist from the University of Malta. “Through the use of the new AUV and the development innovative approaches to offshore survey, we have achieved some important results culminating in the discovery of this historic plane. As always, it has been great working with Cal Poly and Harvey Mudd faculty and students who, together, have contributed to adding an important piece of Malta’s complex historic puzzle.”

Nearly 2,400 Fairey Swordfish aircraft were built between 1936 and 1944. The Swordfish sank more tonnage than any other Allied plane during World War II. There are nine surviving Swordfish and just a handful that are airworthy.

Related links, with photos:
Report on Malta TV:
ICEX student blog:

(Originally posted July 10, 2017)

Contact: Charlotte Tallman

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