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Got a Problem?

These young inventors can make a robot to solve it

The oyster-counting machine and its creators Kevin Lin and Dillon Mandley.

Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Dillon Mandley. Kevin Lin. Everyone knows the first two names. The last two — not yet. In 1980, Jobs and Gates were a couple of 20-somethings working in their garages on what they hoped would be the next big thing. These two icons started in the west; the next two can rise anywhere, maybe even Southern Maryland.
    Innovation can take root wherever a problem needs to be solved. The emerging aquaculture business along Chesapeake Bay has a unique set of challenges ripe for solving by the next Jobs and Gates. Lin and Mandley hope to fill that role in support of ­oyster farming.

The Challenge
    Hired by the College of Southern Maryland to direct the Entrepreneurial and Innovations Institute, Tommy Luginbill has a mission: expand technology links with enterprises ranging from Naval Air Station Patuxent River and its many contractors to farmers and oystermen. To spur innovation and connect his students to real world problems, he set them a competitive challenge. Student teams took on the problems of local business people in agriculture and aquaculture.
    One of the problems facing aquaculturist Pat Hudson was finding a better way to count oysters. The entrepreneur behind the True Chesapeake Oyster Company, an aquafarm in Ridge, Maryland, was packaging a million oysters a year in boxes of 100 — all hand-counted.
    There are machines to do such things, but their cost is far beyond the reach of a small businessman like Hudson.
    The college’s competitive robotics team, the Talons, took on the challenge of inventing an affordable machine.
    “I didn’t expect the Talons to know how to build an oyster-counting robot,” Luginbill told Bay Weekly. “But I had a feeling they’d be the people to figure it out.”

The Talons
    Dillon Mandley, a 20-year-old from Charlotte Hall, has just finished his freshman year at the College of Southern Maryland, the first step on his way to studying electrical engineering at the University of Maryland in College Park. He’s going to school through the Navy’s Pathways program, which provides an internship, financial assistance and a Navy civilian job after graduation.
    Kevin Lin, an 18-year-old from St. Leonard, has just graduated from the College of Southern Maryland and will be entering University of Maryland this fall. He’ll study mechanical engineering and computer science, going on to a masters in robotics and a career in autonomous vehicles.
    “We brainstormed, then started building,” Mandley said.
    Machines that count things are commonplace, but oysters present special challenges. “They are not consistent in size or shape; there are often things attached to the oysters, and other things in the mix,” Mandley explained.
    Oysters are perishable as well as inconsistent. They don’t take well to sitting out in a hot laboratory for hours while engineers tweak a machine — or while judges compare challenge entries. So the team created testable oysters. Using oyster shells, glue and aluminum foil, “we built an assortment of sizes and shapes to simulate real world oysters,” Lin said.

The Winner
    The judges were impressed.
    Lin and Mandley won the challenge, a $1,000 prize and real-world indoctrination into the type of problems they’ll have to solve as engineers.
    Lin is already thinking like an engineer. Given the strength of the competition, he attributed their success to practicality. “I think we won because our solution was affordable,” he said.
    Luginbill is more effusive. “They exceeded my wildest expectations,” the director of Entrepreneur and Innovation Institutes said. “There are people already interested in sponsoring them.”
    Pat Hudson and the True Chesapeake Oyster Company feel like winners, too. “It was ideal,” Hudson told Bay Weekly. “It did exactly what we wanted.”
    Now he’s ready to take the next step, bringing Lin and Mandley to the True Chesapeake Oyster Company farm to show them the operation and brainstorm.” There are a lot of things still to be learned in growing and processing oysters,” Hudson said. “The next generation of our business is the application of technology to aquaculture.”