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Berkeley Pit boat

Pictured here is the boat the Bureau of Mines and Geology used at the Berkeley Pit to sample the acidity of the water. Because of sloughing, the bureau had to stop going onto the water in 2012. Thanks to a donation from Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield to Montana Tech, graduate student Abdullah Alangari will create new technology to allow the boat to go on the water unmanned.

The Berkeley Pit could lead to new boating technology.

A Montana Tech student is getting the go-ahead to build a one-of-a-kind remote control device that will allow an unmanned boat to float on the Berkeley Pit. The boat will be used by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology to sample water.

Bryce Hill, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Tech, said the device could be used for other applications beyond the pit.

Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Co. donated $50,000 to Montana Tech to sponsor a graduate student in electrical engineering to devise a boat that can be controlled from shore.

Abdullah Alangari, a graduate student working toward a master of science degree in electrical engineering, will be doing the work. Alangari graduated in May with his bachelor of science degree in the same field.

Alangari is in his native Saudi Arabia this summer and was not available to comment for this story; but Hill told the Standard about Alangari's work.

"We wanted a specialized boat originally," Hill said. "But we backed away from (that idea). We found better technology that's more modular."

Alangari's technological inspiration came from none other than bass fishermen.

Trolling motors with a GPS and computer chips allow bass fishermen a hands-free boating experience so they can concentrate on fishing.

Hill predicts that the technology Alangari will add to the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology boat will be similar to what bass fishermen use but will have one important exception: Alangari's technology will enable the captain to stay on shore and never step foot in the boat.

MR and ARCO are funding the project because sampling Berkeley Pit water became too dangerous after 2012.

As part of the Superfund consent decree -- the legal document that establishes liabilities -- for the Berkeley Pit, Montana Resources is supposed to provide access to the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology to sample the pit's water twice a year, Mark Thompson, MR's manager of environmental affairs, said. Since 2012, the bureau has not been able to do that work because workers determined it was no longer safe to float on the pit’s lake due to walls sloughing.

The walls sloughed in 1998 and then again 2012 and 2013. The collapse of the southeast wall in 2013 caused 820,000 tons of material to drop into the pit. When the walls slough, dangerously large waves rise within the pit.

More sloughing is inevitable, Thompson said. This would put anyone riding on a boat in the pit in danger.

Hill said that once Alangari creates the new technology to send the unmanned boat onto the acidic lake, the bureau can test the pH -- the acidity -- in the water at different depths and locations. The boat will also carry a camera that will allow the monitors on shore to get a look at parts of the pit that can't be reached on foot.

"With any luck, we can accurately sample the water and give (the Bureau of Mines) a map of what conditions are in the pit," Hill said.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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