EDMONTON - Try building a robot, then dunking it underwater — and pray it doesn’t rust in peace.
That’s the technological pickle a University of Alberta student team is facing this week at the annual RoboSub competition in San Diego.
The 10 students must build a robotic vehicle that operates autonomously and can navigate an underwater obstacle course at a U.S Navy facility. They’re up against 30 teams from all corners of the globe, including China, Sweden and Pakistan.
Sure, the team’s silver cylindrical creation isn’t cute and huggable like Wall-E, the robot in the Disney-Pixar movie. But it’s useful as heck for students looking to apply their classroom knowledge and who relish robotic mishaps.
“You’re doing theory in class all the time; you don’t get to do a lot of hands on stuff and see how it actually applies to what you might do in the real world,” said team leader Mike Bujold from his San Diego hotel. “This gives you the opportunity to experience that first-hand.”
The robot includes a digital compass and equipment that lets the team figure out their location relative to the starting point. Two digital cameras hooked up to the vehicle also look for certain shapes and objects in the course.
In the qualifying round, teams must simply submerge their robot and steer it through a gate. Sounds simple, right? Not so much. In the semifinals, the aim is to accumulate points by accomplishing as many tasks as possible.
At one point in the course, the vehicle must recognize marked bins that it drops markers into. Another element involves the vehicle searching for a specific coloured buoy and hitting it.
The obstacle course requires plenty of painstaking planning. Thankfully, the team has a year to prep.
“We try to prepare for it as best as we can,” Bujold said. “But stuff just comes up sometimes and you can’t plan for it. You’ve got to find a way around it.
“My first year coming here (in 2011), we had our digital compass fail, so we had no idea of which way we were pointing. We kind of had to improvise a system and make a track in a straight line as best we could and that got us through the qualifying part.”
Some mishaps have snuck up on the team this year, too. Their biggest headache has been sealing the machine — kind of important when you’re dealing with that pesky H20.
And on their first day in San Diego, the team suffered a mini heart attack when it thought it hadn’t packed the cameras for the robotic vehicle. “They asked me later and I told them, ‘Oh, I got them, don’t worry about it,’ ” Bujold chuckled. Despite the scares, Bujold said the team is aiming for a top 10 spot, a departure from their typical middle-of-the-pack finish.
“We have a minimum standard that at the very least, we’re gonna do what we did last year and then some,” he said. “We haven’t quite reached that point this year, but we’re working toward it and confident we’ll get to that point.”
And if they win? “That would be awesome. It would be quite an accomplishment and we would definitely be celebrating.”