Categorized | Education, Featured, Sci-Tech

2009 MATE Underwater ROV Competition in Hilo

Hawaiian Academy of Art and Sciences team with their ROV and poster

Hawaiian Academy of Art and Sciences team with their ROV and poster

Special to Hawaii247.com by Andrew Cooper

They are made of PVC pipe, nylon zip-ties, wire, bilge pump motors and dreams. They race to complete a task guided by camera eyes, with young hands at the controls.

The 2009 MATE Big Island Regional Underwater ROV Competition was a demonstration of our next generation of engineers and innovators, and a wonderful example of garage engineering.

Kealakehe Intermediate School ROV team preparing for launch of their ROV at poolside

Kealakehe Intermediate School ROV team preparing for launch of their ROV at poolside

This year was again held at the Sparky Kawamoto Swim Stadium in Hilo and I had again volunteered to be a judge.

Why not? This was too much fun.

I joined with other engineers from Keck, Liquid Robotics and a couple professors from the UofH to see just how well these students could rise to the challenge. My wife also volunteered this year, helping score missions at poolside and from her account having a great time doing it.

The mission was not simple. The ROV had to rescue a crippled submarine sitting on the bottom. First by surveying the damage, then performing tasks such as delivering an air line, opening a hatch to deliver a rescue pod, or docking with the sub.

No matter that the sunken vessel was actually a collection of milk crates at the bottom of a swimming pool, the mission was not easy.

The underwater courses were setup and maintained by several volunteers in scuba gear. They had to place all three test courses in the right position and inspect it between each mission to insure the teams faced the same challenge.

The divers also have some of the best seats in the house, getting to watch the underwater missions first hand. Ripples on the surface of the pool preclude a direct view of the action. The rest of the audience must watch on a pair of large monitors connected to underwater cameras.

This year, I spent most of the time doing presentation scoring, instead of mission scoring. This unfortunately meant I did not get to see most of the action in the pool.

Students from Mauna Kea Educational Academy dealing with an electrical problem aboard their ROV

Students from Mauna Kea Educational Academy dealing with an electrical problem aboard their ROV

What I did see was the effort the students put into their craft as presentations. These half-hour interviews gave judges a chance to really ask questions about the ROV’s.

We could see who really did the work (hopefully not mom or the teachers), who really knew the tech, and who among the teams did the building. Most teams had one or two kids who knew the electronics, there was often an appointed pilot and a writer who did the presentation material and reports.

A few questions revealed who these kids were. The most professional report was assembled by students from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the only entrant in the Explorer class.

Kealakehe ROV operating crew concentrating on the monitors during the mission
There were clearly a few teams who had gotten substantial assistance.

During the interviews,  teachers, mentors and parents had to stand silently to the side, only the kids are allowed to answer questions. On the other hand a couple teams knew their stuff.

I was clear they had built the gear themselves and were perfectly prepared to explain why the motor was on the lower strut, and where the red wire went.

Many of these teams were veterans of previous ROV competitions, the experience showed. The craft were much more capable and the student prepared for all phases of the competition.

There is more to engineering than just building a working device. You have to document your design, and often are required present the device to management or to customers.

Accordingly, each team had to submit a technical report on their ROV and had to do a presentation to the judges. These were worth a significant amount of points in the competition, and this was where the rookie teams were often ill prepared.

It was the team from Kealakehe Intermediate School that really showed what experience could do. They had done this last year, winning the regional to go on to the international competition where they had done fairly well.

Kealakehe ROV operating crew concentrating on the monitors during the mission

Kealakehe ROV operating crew concentrating on the monitors during the mission

Not only was their ROV quite capable, they had gotten in a lot of practice, completing the mission goals in short order. They had also spent time perfecting the other aspects of the competition, with a great engineering report and a well rehearsed presentation that covered nearly every item on my score sheet.

This team even treated us to a song about their ROV, a little ditty set to the theme of Sponge Bob.

Kealakehe may have scored highest in the intermediate school group, but they were upset in overall scoring by Mauna Kea Educational Academy, a group of mostly home- school kids who proved they knew how to build an ROV.

Their robot was the most sophisticated by far, a powerful screw driven claw, an on-board relay based motor control system, USB cameras, all assembled very neatly. So neatly it was suspicious of who actually built the craft, suspicions put to rest when electronic problems arose.

The students knew what they were doing when dismantling the housing and working the problem. They soon had the problem fixed and were back in the water where they quickly performed each of the missions.

Next year promises to be even more interesting. Not only is the regional competition again going to be here in Hilo, but the international competition will be hosted by the Big Island. Looking forward to seeing these students again. One more year of experience under their belt should really make the competition intense.

Andrew Cooper: darkerview.com/darkview

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