POINT LOMA – Whether they’re helping search the ocean for a missing Malaysian airliner or diving miles deep to scour for new species, autonomous underwater vehicles – the drones of the sea – are changing our world; and no one agrees more than the students who hope to create them in the future.
High schools and colleges from more than a dozen countries showed off their own underwater drones during a four-day robotics competition called “RoboSub.” The event tasked teams with creating small self-piloting submarines complete with a program that would allow them to maneuver around an underwater obstacle course.
One San Diego team – Mechatronics – made waves at the event, which was hosted by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific in Point Loma. The San Diego State University group busted into the semifinals the first day of the competition, which was held in a six million gallon research pool next to the Navy’s submarine base.
“A lot of teams don’t even get through the first obstacle,” said mechanical engineering major Austin Owens, who is also the team’s president. “We would have been happy with 27th place, so the fact that we’ve done as well as we have is really gratifying.”
Mechatronics finished in 11th place among the 38 teams. The top three spots went to: Cornell University, University of Florida and École de Technologie Supérieure in Montreal, Canada.
The objectives seemed easy enough: Go through an underwater gate, touch a buoy, follow a track on the pool’s floor. But getting a robot to make those decisions on its own required about 10,000 lines of code, and about 4,500 hours of work over the course of a year, Owens said.
SDSU’s robotic submarine was named The Endeavor – and apparently it’s a dude. “Oh, it’s definitely a guy,” said Chris Harris, a fresh graduate from SDSU’s mechanical engineering department. “He’s beefy and aggressive and he’s always running into things.”
The Endeavor looks like a plastic suitcase encased in metal framing. It was built from the ground up by SDSU’s team, which includes guys and girls whose majors run the gamut: from electrical engineering to software engineers to business. The team includes four veterans, as well.
Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (or AUV’s) like The Endeavor have a lot of real-world applications, said Daniel Deitz, a program officer with the Office of Naval Research and a judge at the event. AUV’s were at the scene of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, and are currently scouring the bottom of the world’s ocean for mines.
Deitz said the competition gives students the chance to take what they learn in class and apply it in a real-world setting. He also said some of their ideas are truly innovative. “When you have an unlimited budget, it’s really easy to make robots at this point,” he said. “But students are great innovators of figuring out how to do these high tech tasks with a very low budget.” Mechatronics, for example, came up with a software feature that allowed The Endeavor to keep going whatever direction its headed, even if it was pushed off course.
Lawrence Erb, another recent graduate of SDSU who sunk countless of hours into the creation of the robot, said innovation is about coming at the project with no constraints. “We don’t come in with all that baggage,” Erb said of the college team. “We’ll come in with a new, creative way to solve the problem. It’s a great way to infuse innovation into the industry while allowing us industry exposure.”
Owens said the team was proud of its showing and were confident they’d make it even farther next year. “We went so much farther than I ever thought we would,” Owens said. “A month ago I was just hoping we’d make it through (the first obstacle.) To do what we did here – it’s the best feeling ever.”