At a secret location high atop Aiea Heights Drive, teams from Pearl City High and Highlands Intermediate School assemble to test their remotely operated vehicles in the inhospitable environment of water. The site is a backyard pool; but its purpose is to simulate the ocean on Earth or another planet.
When we talk of robotics, we typically hear about land-based competitions, such as VEX, FIRST, Lego League and Botball. In the case of MATE ROV, the robot is required to perform all its functions under water.
It’s late afternoon. The students are taking turns submerging their ROVs into the pool, running them through the assigned duties. A few are at the controls watching a monitor as a robotic arm tries to pick up a piece of tubing. Another student is managing the umbilical cord that provides signals and power to the vehicle, trying to make sure it doesn’t get tangled. As it gets dark, one team switches on the onboard lights so they can see their rover.
Aside from being an underwater competition, what also makes MATE ROV unique is its team structure. The opening line of the 2016 overview states, “Think of yourselves as Entrepreneurs.” Each team has a company structure with a chief executive officer, chief financial officer and technical lead. Each team chooses a name and approaches the competition as a pitch to do the job at hand.
This year’s tasks in the Ranger category, for intermediate-level members from middle and high schools, included these objectives:
Mission to Europa: Measure the temperature of water emerging from a vent; determine the thickness of the ice and depth of the ocean;
Mission-Critical Equipment Recovery: Use serial numbers to identify mission-critical equipment and transport the equipment to a collection basket for later recovery;
Forensic Fingerprinting: Collect a sample of oil from the sea floor, return the samples to the surface, and analyze gas chromatographs to determine the sample’s origin;
Deepwater Coral Study: Take still photographs of two coral colonies and evaluate those photographs to determine whether the coral colonies are growing, stable, or decreasing in size;
Rigs to Reefs: Attach a flange to the top of a decommissioned wellhead, install a wellhead cap to the top of the flange, and secure both the flange and the wellhead cap with bolts.
In order the accomplish the tasks at hand each ROV needs specialized engineering. They have to construct a camera system for underwater viewing; a propulsion system to maneuver the ROV; grippers and hooks to retrieve and transport samples; and buoyancy and ballast tanks for repeated submerging and surfacing. Not a simple task — and for the most part, all of it is done outside of normal school hours.
As intense as it is to create and operate an underwater vehicle, that is only part of the team’s evaluation. The product demonstration is equally weighted against the engineering and communications section, which includes presenting the product to a panel of judges, and providing a technical documentation folder detailing the “company’s” ROV product, a poster board marketing display, and a safety briefing.
Kathy Lin, science teacher at Pearl City Highlands Intermediate, tells me that of all the robotics competitions, this is the most challenging. When operating a vehicle underwater, any leak into the electronics can be disastrous. And failed electronics do not necessarily tell you where the leak might be.
During the Oahu Regional competition, I followed team Kaimana Enterprises, a Ranger class team from Pearl City, as they did their product demonstration. I noticed their joy stick controller would freeze after a few minutes of operation. Turning it off and on would reset it temporarily; but during the competition, that is the best troubleshooting they could do. Isolating the problem would have taken hours, precious time they didn’t have.
Other teams fared better. Another Pearl City team, Triton Robotics, took 1st place in the Ranger class. The team consists of Alex Yamada, Andrew Hayashi and Reyan Lee. They will represent Oahu in the International MATE finals on June 23 through 25 at the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Center in Houston, Texas. These teams are specially designed to pair a novice member with more seasoned members, to ensure a succession plan.
Alex Yamada, the student CEO of Triton Robotics, told me in an email, “Participating in the MATE ROV competition has given me not only technical skills and knowledge, but also interpersonal, non-technical skills, which I feel are more significant. As the CEO for the past two years, I had to drastically improve my communication, teamwork, and leadership skills, which have benefited me on numerous occasions outside of the MATE program.”
The entry level Scout team award went to a homeschool team called the Minions. Scouts could consist of elementary through high school students with the criteria of novice experience with ROV design and construction. One level up from Scout is Navigator. The 2016 award at that level went to a team from St. John Vianney School, in Kailua.
Carlie Wiener, from the Schmidt Ocean Institute and one of this year’s judges said via email, “I am constantly impressed by the students in this competition, they are so creative, dedicated and bright. The variety of vehicles ranged from an ROV called “noodles” that had a PVC pipe frame and an arm made of chopsticks, to another vehicle with a completely remodeled control system and aluminum cubical frame.”
Underwater robotics would seem to hold great promise here in Hawaii and these students may be the future CEOs and engineers to make that happen.
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Burt Lum is a communicator, innovator, community builder, open data advocate, and sci/tech geek. He is the Executive Director of Hawaii Open Data, co-hosts Bytemarks Cafe on Hawaii Public Radio and the Geek Beat on Hawaii News Now.