Front Range Community College students win with oil spill drone


Xavier Cotton and Cristian Madrazo recall being children watching a video of oil spewing from Deepwater Horizon and poisoning the Gulf of Mexico.

They also remember how ridiculous it seemed that Dawn was running ads about decontaminating baby otters with a few ounces of dish soap in the face of a 210 million gallon oil spill.

Surely there had to be something better to oppose to an ocean of dislocated fossil fuels.

Fast forward to engineering classes at Front Range Community College, with a teacher’s challenge to make their freshman project address an environmental and sustainability issue. Between warehouse shifts at Amazon and other requests from young people, Cotton and Madrazo watched oil spill videos on YouTube.

Weeks of tinkering later, and with the help of a wading pool, a few empty water bottles as flotation devices, and much of Cotton’s own hair, the team produced “Orca.”

It’s a drone for oil spills. It sits at the edge of a plastic dam that surrounds and slowly rolls up a floating spill, and absorbs the oil through a hair filter.

Orca works like the baleen hairs inside a whale’s mouth. (Don’t “actually” tell young engineers that orcas are fake whales, because they’ve heard it. They stick to the Wiki explanation of an orca as “a toothed whale belonging to the family ocean dolphins,” and they know their marketing, as we’re about to find out.)

A working prototype of the “Orca” oil-skimming drone toils in a Walmart wading pool as Front Range Community College students Cristian Madrazo and Xavier Cotton perfect their model. (Photo provided by Madrazo and Cotton)

Orca won the local Front Range Community College engineering challenge and their enthusiastic teachers encouraged them to enter national competitions. So they went. And in June, Cotton and Madrazo won second prize — along with a money hunter — at the National Science Foundation’s annual community college innovation challenge. The judges, who first grilled all the teams in a “Shark Tank” style atmosphere, called Orca “a new method of cleaning up oil spills that is both inexpensive and fast”.

Not to mention, Cotton said, “current solutions are just terrible. The main solutions are like combustion, which releases fumes into the environment, and these chemical diffusers which remain in the ocean releasing toxins. There are oil-based sponges, which kind of suck up the oil, and then the sponges just drop to the ground, and they litter the oceans for different creatures and critters to feed on. We had to do this.

Human hair absorbs five times its weight in oil. When Cotton’s ‘do wasn’t big enough for the job, they added some dog hair. They poured motor oil into a Walmart paddling pool, put their manhole cover-sized drone to work, and it sucked. In the right direction.

The award is partly a consolation for the fact that Cotton’s hair has yet to grow back.

Personality in presentation

Diane Rhodes, professor of computer science at Front Range Community College, explains that the duo succeeded in part because they had a good idea, backed it up with strong engineering and modeling work, and ‘they took the time to overcome the physical issues and fix the broken parts. But their personalities also had a big impact, Rhodes said.

Succeeding in innovation contests takes interaction, practice in public and a bit of selling, Rhodes said.

“They were very enthusiastic and very competent. They were able to articulate their problem concisely. And they weren’t shy,” Rhodes said. “They had fun. I like to have fun in my class. I take my class seriously, but don’t take myself too seriously,” and that’s what Cotton, 19, and Madrazo, 22, said. brought with Orca, she said.

“And I never once had to tell them to put their phone down. What I thought I should do. Because I have to do it in my class. Unfortunately,” she said.

The two engineering students say each presentation has improved, with help from Rhodes, other teachers and expert judges from the national competition at the Library of Congress.

“I learned to give your audience just enough to understand,” Cotton said. “And not so much what we care about, or what we think they should care about. Just let them guide the conversation.

Before a big presentation, Rhodes said, the boys came up to her and told her they had practiced a new technique. They had created a graphically fresh poster that everyone saw as a killer take on their idea, and they wanted their presentation to feel like a scripted but casual conversation between Madrazo and Cotton. Rhodes was a little uncomfortable with what seemed very corny.

“So they went and did it, and it was fantastic,” Rhodes said. “And I thought, that’s a classic example of why you shouldn’t just say no right away before you see.”

A judge in Washington, DC, started talking excitedly about the possibilities of patents and commercialization. Rhodes agrees that Orca could very well prove to be a viable product in the future, but for now they plan to “park” the idea and focus on more school work. Cotton is heading for a four-year degree at the Colorado School of Mines, and Madrazo will transfer his credits to the University of Colorado to work in architectural engineering.

A prototype of the “Orca” oil spill cleanup drone with a sampling boom attached to contain the oil as it is sucked into the float for separation. (Front Range Community College)

“They have a lot to do,” Rhodes said.

Like all good engineers and entrepreneurs, the team stuffed their heads with ideas from other innovators in their competitions. Madrazo admired an HIV drug idea from a university in Santa Monica that was deeply rooted in a kind of biological engineering very different from the mechanical engineering shown in other products. Cotton was very excited about a recycling bin that automatically scans dropped materials and sorts or rejects items that need to go elsewhere.

“They did a really good job,” Cotton said. “I’m proud to have come in second place behind them.”

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