U of Md. Engineering Students Invent Anti-Oyster Poaching Device

A group of six undergraduate students at the University of Maryland have come up with a way to catch illegal oyster dredgers on the Bay red-handed.

The Bay Watcher oyster dredge-detecting beacon’s prototype

They call themselves “Team Oyster Boys,” and their prototype, Bay Watcher, is a beacon that detects the sound of dredging underwater, sending a signal up to the surface to alert authorities that poaching is underway.

An oyster farmer from Solomons approached the mechanical engineering students with his dilemma: how to catch thieves dredging oysters illegally from privately-leased farms or protected sanctuaries. 

The solution, dubbed Bay Watcher, is the result of a 15-week Capstone Project for mechanical engineering majors Kyle Thibeault, Noah Suttner, Chris Buckley, Patrick O’Shea, and Steve Powers, all of whom just graduated this month, and Noah Todd, who has one more semester to go.

O’Shea tells Bay Bulletin, the team initially pursued four ideas to solve the oyster farmer’s problem:  Sonar detection, marked oysters, dredge traps, and the ultimate solution they settled on, a hydrophone. O’Shea explains, “A hydrophone is a phone that sits underwater, listening to anything and everything,” and in this case, the hydrophone would detect frequencies that indicate underwater dredging is underway.

As it happens, hydrophones don’t come cheap, and the $1,500 price tag would have blown the project’s $250 budget. But that didn’t stop the Oyster Boys; they built their own hydrophone, taking it out to the waters off Solomons to test it. Their initial hydrophone had a 30-foot range, but with improvements, they were able to achieve a 50-foot range.

The team built a fish-shaped shell for their device using the university’s 3D printer. It features a propeller that harnesses the water’s current for a little extra power. Bay Watcher primarily runs on a watch battery and lithium batteries.

A semester’s worth of hard work paid off for the Oyster Boys, when they competed in the school’s Spring 2018 Design Day. Up against other innovative student projects, Bay Watcher won the Sustainability Award, as judged by the University’s sustainability department. The project was recognized for its ability to protect oysters, a valuable environmental resource. The award included a $100 donation to a charity of the team’s choosing, and the Oyster Boys, appropriately, chose the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

All six members of the Oyster Boys are Maryland natives, and they know how important oysters are to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. “Oysters are the primary filters in the Bay,” O’Shea points out, “and illegal dredging isn’t allowing the population to grow. It’s our responsibility to have in the back of our heads to protect the Chesapeake Bay’s resources.”

Bay Watcher was a hypothetical student project, but it may someday become reality. O’Shea says the University’s Office of Technology Commercialization reached out to the team to pursue the project’s feasibility in the real world.

And how will these innovative students fare in the real world? Just days after graduation, O’Shea moved to Colorado to begin his career as a field engineer for Whiting-Turner.  It’s safe to say the Oyster Boys are engineering their way to success.

-Meg Walburn Viviano