UAF team readies ROV to ‘take a dive’ in Hawaii
By Kelsey Gobroski
Sun Star Contributor
Three UAF students will show off their resourcefulness when they pit their garage-built underwater robot against the big budget Remotely Operated Vehicles of larger teams at a competition in Hawaii this summer. On June 24, University of Hawaii-Hilo will host a three-day underwater robotics competition that requires the teams to run their robots through scenarios that have real-world applications. This year the various tasks will be based on exploring Loihi, an underwater volcano and will demonstrate how ROV’s can be used in treacherous terrain. The robots will take measurements from PVC “hot water vents,” collect biological samples and maneuver in a cramped underwater cave.
The Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) center is based in Monterey California. Its mission is to connect science and engineering students with employers in marine technology. The annual International ROV Competition attracts more than 50 teams from throughout the world. This year, UAF students Vincent Weibel, James Halliday and Kodiak Cullen, along with their team adviser, Orion Lawlor, will be the only Alaskan representatives at the event. They will face off against teams from MIT, UCLA, and Purdue as well as international teams from Russia, China, Scotland and Spain.
“It’s kind of cool, we’re building stuff out of a garage and we got teams [at the competition] from MIT with full machine shops … and we’re just slapping stuff together,” said Weibel, a mechanical engineering sophomore. He said they prefer keeping the team small because, without large-team bureaucracy, “we can try really drastic designs”.
The students meet weekly at Lawlor’s house in Fox. Parts and equipment clutter much of Lawlor’s garage. Weibel said they started the first competition with “a hand drill, a hack saw, and a couple of screwdrivers.”
The team can earn points by building parts themselves, which offsets the advantage that larger teams with bigger budgets have. Originally, they reused parts from Weibel’s previous land-based ROV projects at Lathrop High School. In 2008, they began building their own circuit boards from scratch. They keep costs down by browsing hardware stores, instead of buying ready-made parts. The final product will probably be made from about $500 worth of parts, Weibel said.
At its last meeting, the team attached handmade thrusters to a mock-up PVC frame, letting the robot loose in a 330-gallon tank as the unfinished final frame sat nearby. They used to go to the campus pool, but Weibel said they ended up spending all of their scheduled time fixing electrical problems.
Lawlor said finding the right camera has also been a challenge. They have tested many, but the team is pleased with the one they have now.
“We’ve had times before where we lost video and that completely just cripples us,” Weibel said. The team will rely heavily on the robot’s cameras, especially for the cave tasks. They paid close attention to the camera’s waterproof seal. “The most challenging thing is just keeping the water out,” he said.
“I heard about fun robot stuff – I ended up designing circuit boards,” Halliday said. He started attending the meetings in 2008. As a senior in computer science, he found his niche in programming, “even though most teams don’t have any software,” he said. This will be his second competition. Weibel has gone to the competition four times, and does mostly mechanical work. This will be the first competition for Cullen, a freshman in computer engineering. Lawlor, an assistant professor of computer science, started advising the ROV group in 2007
In 2007, Weibel spent a few thousand dollars on the competition but he said it was worth the expense. “A lot of people use money for vacations, but the ability to build a robot and compete against other schools is what interests me,” he said.
Weibel said the team has gotten awards in the past — for piloting and last minute repairs — but prizes aren’t an important part of the competition. The 2008 team received the Martin Bowen Memorial Inspiration for Future Engineers Award.
Lawlor said he can see the team gaining confidence with mechanical design and with confidence will come innovation. They want to eventually design a robot that can navigate obstacles without its game controller-styled remote.
“The next step is autonomy — making the thing be able to make its own decisions,” Lawlor said.