European university robotics teams gain deeper understanding of autonomous underwater vehicle challenges

September 7, 2011 - via CRUSER News

For the ten teams participating in the Student Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Challenge–Europe (SAUC-E), held at the NATO Undersea Research Centre (NURC) July 4-11, 2011, it wasn’t the difficult course, or even the highly qualified competition that worried them. The biggest obstacle was the underwater environment, with its limited visibility, currents and salty water.

The team from the University of Lübeck in Germany—with their AUV named Hanse —received the top scores by successfully completing mission tasks, along with other factors such as presentation and project documentation.
The team from the DFKI Bremen (The German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, or The Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz (DFKI)) was the third place winner.

The fourth place team was from ENSTA Bretagne in France (École Nationale Supérieure de Techniques Avancées Bretagne, or "National Institute of Advanced Technology, Brittany" in English). Heriot-Watt University from Scotland and their "Nessie" AUV also qualified for the final round of the competition and received the “Cooperation Award."

This year’s “mission” was conducted in NURC’s marina, a salt-water basin open to La Spezia harbor—the third busiest in Italy— on the Ligurian Sea. “This proved to be extremely challenging last year and was so again, many
of the team’s performances were better than the previous year, nevertheless they all found the conditions extremely challenging and careful consideration needs to be given to the tasks in 2012 to ensure they remain within the
capabilities of teams whilst continuing to stretch their technical capabilities,” said Vladimir Djapic of NURC, the SAUC-E technical director.

This is the sixth year for SAUC-E, and the second year the event has been held at La Spezia. The NATO research facility will also host the 2012 competition. “Strongly supported by 10 Universities from four European countries the
standard has again improved, both in terms of the student’s technical prowess and the facilities that the NURC was able to provide,” said Dr Dirk Tielbuerger, director of NURC. “The challenging environment, wave action, visibility, salinity, tidal and sonar conditions have raised the competition to a new level, but one which was achievable by nearly all of the teams.”

Each team occupied work and storage areas with power, as well as a tented space along the basin. Two areas prepared in the tidal basin itself, one for the competition and another for testing and practice, and two pools were set up for basic testing.

Tielbuerger said it is extremely important that research establishments like the NURC support and foster the next generation of undersea scientists. “Competitions such as SAUC- E are a springboard for the next generation of
scientists; they expose the students to the scientific and industrial community and us to them,” he said. “Without such mentoring we run the risk of losing these talented and enthusiastic young men and women to other scientific disciplines.”

In addition to technical director Djapic, NURC provided outstanding event staffing and support. Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nick Gwatkin was the event coordinator, as well as the diver to support the in-water events. Stefano Biagini was the engineering coordinator, assisted by his collegue, Stefano Fioravanti, who served as a judge. NURC technicians Alberto Grati and Marco Paoli provided technical and engineering assitance, to include equipment and boat operations. The NURC Inflatable boat was used throughout the competition and provided on water safety cover and safety cover during the diving serials.

Teams could be comprised of a combination of students, faculty, industrial partners, or government partners with a maximum of 10 people per team. Unlike some competition in fresh water pools, the SAUC-E teams were
operating in salt water with limited visibility. If a vehicle failed, a diver had to search for the vehicle before it could be recovered.

A new rule will be established for next year is indicative of the challenging operating environment in the basin. “To assist in the recovery of the vehicles in restricted underwater visibility each is to be fitted with a strobe
light that will operate continually.”

The U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research sponsored the event. NATO nations have an interest in competitions such as this, which are designed to encourage qualified students to understand and pursue careers in underwater technology and related applications while fostering innovation and technology. "All teams performed with important achievements that will help them to continue with their work in the future,” said Tielbuerger.

Captain Edward Lundquist, USN (Ret.) is a principal science writer for MCR Federal LLC in Arlington, Virginia.

SAUC- E 2011 Results
1ST University of Lübeck (4000€)
2nd University of Girona (3000€)
3rd University of Bremen (2000€)
4th ENSTA – Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Techniques Avancées Bretagne (1500€)

Other Awards – 1000 Euros
Best use of Resources – ESIA - Ecole Supérieure D’Informatique Electronique
Automatique ‘Ryujin ‘Team
Experimentation – University of West of England
Teamwork – University of Cambridge
Engineering Award – University of Southampton and University of
Birmingham (Combined team)
Co-operation Award – Heriot – Watt University (Edinburgh)
Perseverance and Tenacity award - ESIA - Ecole Supérieure D’Informatique
Electronique Automatique

Teams participating in SAUC-E 201111
University of Girona, Spain
Heriot-Watt University, UK
ENSTA Bretagne, France
DFKI Bremen, Germany
University of Southampton and University of Birmingham (Joint Team), UK
University of West England, UK
University of Lübeck, Germany
University of Cambridge, UK
ESIEA Paris (two separate teams entered), France

The objectives of the competition were to:
- Advance the state of the art of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles by challenging multi-disciplinary teams of students and engineers to perform an autonomous mission in the underwater environment.
- To foster ties between young engineers and the organisations involved in AUV technologies.
- Create a suitable environment for interdisciplinary interactions between academic researchers.
- To promote technical excellence in the field.
- To attract research teams, schools and universities and to engage with them in order to help them to investigate and prepare for tomorrow's challenges.
- During this event, contact between the university teams and companies invited to participate will be "strongly encouraged" and reinforced by the organization of the event to help create an effective synergy between the
actors in the interest of the Office of Naval Research—to include ONR Global—and NATO.

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Author:Edward Lundquist