Campus Life class spotlight

A pearl of a project: Transforming the aquafarm of the future

Students in 2.017 create an autonomous surface vehicle to aid local oyster aquafarmers

In 2016, the aquaculture industry overtook wild caught seafood for the first time in human history. Our population continues to grow, and our oceans cannot keep up without help. As our climate changes and our need for sustainable food sources grows more pressing, aquaculture — farming fish and mollusks and seaweed — can fill the gap in a delicious and environmentally healthy way. In Massachusetts, some of the most important species for aquaculture are mollusks like oysters, clams, and scallops. The local farms that grow them are able to provide a sustainable food source that prevents overfishing along the depleted New England coastline while using fewer resources and producing less waste than land-based meat farming.

Ward Aquafarms, located on Cape Cod, grows their oysters in large mesh bags that float at the surface of the water and are connected together in large arrays of hundreds of bags. Because the undersides of the bags sit in the water, algae and other growth quickly clogs the mesh, preventing the filter feeder crops inside from getting the water flow that they need to grow. Farmers must flip the bags over once a week to let the biofouling dry out and chip off, leaving the mesh clean once again. The method is simple, but the labor is incredibly difficult.

Farm workers must flip thousands of bags weighing up to 50 lbs each from a small kayak that they must fit through the rows of oyster bags. It is this difficult, exhausting, and uncomfortable labor that presents one of the largest barriers to production on the farm. 

That’s where the students of 2.017 (Design of Electromechanical Robotic Systems) come in! By automating the bag flipping process, farm workers will no longer have to do the arduous manual labor themselves, but can instead direct and supervise an autonomous surface vessel as it navigates through the arrays of oyster bags.

This semester, students in the small, hands-on capstone design class will work with Ward Aquafarms to fabricate and test an autonomous surface vehicle to automate the bag-flipping process. From concept to controls to creation, students will work with researchers and instructors to deliver a vessel that has a meaningful impact on food sustainability in New England.

The class is geared towards juniors and seniors with some background in electronics, robotics, or mechanics. Students will get hands-on experience in mechanical design and fabrication, electronics and autonomy, and even some naval architecture. As a member of the team you’ll be solving complex problems in the dynamic ocean environment and getting an immersive experience into working with real world clients.

This spring, 2.017 is a 12-unit class with remote synchronous lectures and in-person lab sessions at the Sea Grant Teaching Lab. Interested students may email

This article is part of the column Class Spotlight, which will discuss and recommend interesting, yet not popularly known, classes at MIT. Students or professors who hope to submit further entries or classes for consideration to this column may email