Inspiring a New Wave of Engineers with Underwater Robots

IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society holds competitions for students

8 May 2015

Robot contests have always been a popular way to attract students to engineering. So it’s no surprise that the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society is using such competitions to interest students in the field. In particular, the society is asking students to design and build autonomous underwater vehicles.

In the real world, AUVs do a variety of tasks. For example, they monitor ocean environments, locate undersea archaeological sites, and patrol ports and harbors for security purposes. The robots can reach shallower waters than research boats and dive deeper than humans. They can also work around the clock, even in inclement weather, and their sensors can be as accurate as those on research vessels or satellites.

Today’s AUVs use the latest in technology, like HD video cameras, lithium batteries, LED lights, imaging sonar, GPS, Wi-Fi, and acoustic tracking transponders. And they come in all shapes and sizes. Some look like stingrays, while others resemble footballs, crabs, or octopi.

And today’s AUVs are inexpensive. An open source robot and software kit can sell for less than US $1,000.

With all these attributes, it’s no wonder AUV student competitions are growing in popularity around the world. The society has sponsored contests in Hong Kong, India, Japan, and Singapore.

HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE

By having them build something, the contests make the students concentrate on the practical aspects of engineering theory, points out IEEE Member Tawfiq Taher, chair of the IEEE Singapore Section’s OES chapter.

“Engineering students in my part of the world don’t get exposed to many real-world projects,” he says. “These competitions are exciting for them.”

Taher is the senior research manager at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology Centre, which is part of the Center of Environmental Sensing and Modeling. The center uses AUVs for environmental monitoring. 

The OES chapter is relatively new to holding competitions, having begun just three years ago in an effort to boost its student activities and recruit student members. Because the number of IEEE student members pursuing a degree in oceanic engineering in Singapore is small, the contest is open to students from any country. Nine teams participated in this year’s competition in March at Singapore Polytechnic including ones from China, India, Russia, and Singapore.

Taher points to several nontechnical skills that the students learn along the way. These include how to work with others to solve a problem and how to resolve a conflict and keep calm when frustrated.

Since 2006, the IEEE Japan Section’s OES chapter has held 20 competitions, which it also calls conventions. The competitions are held twice a year. One is for engineering students from universities and technical colleges, the other for preuniversity students. In 2014, some 27 teams competed and nearly 200 people attended the two events.

“Japanese students have few opportunities in school to build and design something,” says Member Kenichi Asakawa, vice president of the OES chapter and a researcher for the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, in Yokosuka, just outside Tokyo. “By constructing underwater robots, they get to do many things like building a computer system, writing software designing electric circuits, assembling mechanical parts, balancing weight and buoyancy, and working as a team.”

Some university professors in Japan require their students to build and enter an AUV in one of the contests as part of their final project. This was the case for master’s degree students Kosuke Murata and Nobuyoshi Okada, at the University of Tokyo. Their team’s members had various backgrounds, including mechanical and marine engineering and computer science.

“We learned so many things about underwater technology through this assignment,” says Murata. 

“We also learned to predict problems that might occur during the competition, which made us able to handle them immediately,” adds Okada.

This proved to be valuable on the day of the contest, when water flooded one of the camera housings on their robot.  

GAME PLAN

Each contest has its own rules, but teams typically must design and build an AUV to carry out specific tasks in an Olympic-size pool. For example, in the competition held at Singapore Polytechnic, the robots had to complete four tasks in 10 minutes or less.  The student placed the robot into the water from a start zone that is 140 centimeters on a side and marked with floats. The robot had to autonomously submerge to any depth in the water without touching the surface or bottom of the pool. It then had to swim through a 150 cm-high gate, similar to a soccer goal, that was 800 cm away from the start zone. A 3-cm-wide black line on the bottom of the pool marked the path to the gate.

Next, the robot had to drop a ball about the size of a golf ball into a red bucket measuring about 50 cm in diameter. Then it had to bump another ball off a yellow-colored stand, called a flare, which was 400 cm away. There were no lines to help the AUV navigate toward the flare. Finally, the AUV had to resurface in a 150-cm-square end zone marked with two acoustic pingers on the water’s surface. The robot navigates there by listening to the pingers.

“Building AUVs for this contest is a really good internship program for just about any job in the field of ocean engineering,” Taher says.

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