POINT LOMA — There will be some tense moments this weekend for more than 200 engineering students when it’s finally time to put their robotic submarines to the test. Teams from 29 universities, technical schools and high schools from 10 countries will place their devices in the water, flip the switch and cross their collective fingers, hoping their subs will successfully navigate the Navy’s obstacle course. Because once the robots are in the water, there’s nothing more the students can do but watch and hope for the best.
It’s all part of the 15th International RoboSub Competition, which runs through Sunday at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific’s massive pool in Point Loma. At stake: Bragging rights. Up to $20,000. And, perhaps more importantly, potential job opportunities for the American competitors.
Engineering students, including those from San Diego City College and San Diego Mesa College, have created autonomous underwater vehicles that will be presented with a complicated mission. Once the robots are in the water, they cannot be assisted in any way.
The stated goal of the event is to challenge a new generation of engineers to design and build autonomous underwater vehicles capable of performing realistic missions.
The robots must complete their missions in the 300-by-200-foot pool without any communication or control from a person or off-board computer. The pool, 38 feet deep and containing six million gallons of water, is designed to simulate real ocean conditions. “They have to mimic the behaviors that the Navy is trying to develop in its underwater vehicles,” said Daryl Davidson, the executive director AUVSI Foundation, which co-sponsors the competition. “This is really pretty difficult stuff that the public doesn’t understand.”
The first elements in the course are vision-based, Davidson said. The vehicles are equipped with cameras and must navigate around the obstacles in the course. When they do, they encounter acoustic-based obstacles.
To get around those, the robots generally need sonar equipment. “We don’t expect any team to complete the whole course,” Davidson said. “It’s doable, but you have to have a very technologically advanced sub and a well-organized team.”
This year’s field comes from all over the planet, some at considerable expense.
The defending champions are Canadian. Montreal-based École de Technologie Supérieure not only won last year’s competition, it also recently won a similar event in Italy. Teams from Cornell University and the University of Florida are expected to be in title contention based on previous years’ performances.
Kevin Larose, who has been on the École de Technologie Supérieure team for five years, said his squad expects a tough challenge. “Everyone is expecting us to be very strong,” said Larose, 26, who serves as team captain. “We know the teams that were second, third and fourth last year have been working very, very hard. When they say we are the team to beat, we don’t disagree with them, but we don’t take winning for granted.”
The competition is free and open to the public. The pool and free parking is located on Catalina Boulevard, near the Cabrillo National Monument.
The event is hosted by the Navy, which is interested in the technology, wants to hire some of the competition’s top American talent and hopes to increase its educational outreach with regard to science and technology programs, SPAWAR spokesman Jim Fallin said.
There are six schools in all from California, including one high school. Besides San Diego City College and San Diego Mesa College, the University of California Irvine, University of Southern California, Mount San Antonio College and Amador Valley High School are entered in the event. One team from India, Bangalore Robotics, had to drop out because the participants couldn’t secure visas in time, Davidson said.
San Diego City College engineering student Jose Sermeno, who captains the team and is competing for the second straight year, said his group is shooting for a top-eight finish after placing 15th last year. At City College, robotics is a team, class and club, he said.
This year, the group spent about $4,000 on their device, which Sermeno, 31, said is far less than what some of theother teams can spend. “It’s exciting to be able to compete at the same caliber of the other machines, spending a fraction of the money,” he said. “Other teams are extremely impressed by what we’re able to do.”