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SPAWAR Hosts Underwater Robotic Competition

Above: The team from Cornell University launch their submersible at the SPAWAR testing pool in Point Loma.

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Aired 7/31/09

The U.S. military is seeking to develop unmanned robots to take over dangerous tasks in the air, on land and underwater. This weekend, SPAWAR - the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center - on Point Loma, hosts a competition at its testing pool for the best new unmanned submersible. The designers in this competition are not highly paid researchers, they are students.

A member of the Florida Atlantic University team checks the progress his submersible in the SPAWAR testing pool on Point Loma.
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Above: A member of the Florida Atlantic University team checks the progress his submersible in the SPAWAR testing pool on Point Loma.

— The U.S. military is seeking to develop unmanned robots to take over dangerous tasks in the air, on land and underwater. This weekend, SPAWAR - the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center - on Point Loma, hosts a competition at its testing pool for the best new unmanned submersible. The designers in this competition are not highly paid researchers, they are students.

A team of undergrads from Cornell tries not to get flustered as the autonomous submersible vehicle they’ve spent months building is lowered into the water. Through its sleek transparent siding, a mass of complex wiring, computer components are dials are visible. The students hover around the dock wearing T-shirts covered in high tech logos. They carrying laptops, lots of mysterious looking equipment and a kind of tent to set up over the control station on the edge of the pool.

This is just one of 30 teams that have come to San Diego to test their skills in SPAWAR’s 40-foot deep pool, a huge circular pond hidden in the scrub on the backside of Point Loma overlooking the ocean

There are teams here from Asia, Canada and all over the United States. A team from the U.S. Naval Academy is making particularly good headway in finding underwater targets they need to photograph in order to program their sub for the mission.

Students from the U.S. Naval Academy calculate how their submersible should be programmed to navigate to targets on the bottom of the pool.
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Above: Students from the U.S. Naval Academy calculate how their submersible should be programmed to navigate to targets on the bottom of the pool.

Three navy recruits sit behind three laptops, each of which controls a different aspect of the mission at hand.

“Where do I want to go?” asks the student controlling the sub’s movements.

“I say aim for the octagon,” responds another teammate, “and give me a heads up if we are coming up on any targets on the bottom.”

“Can you see the targets?” inquires someone anxiously after a minute or two.

“Yes,” comes the response, “I got a great view of the bombing targets. Hover tight there.”

“Excellent!”

Steve Koepenick of SPAWAR said the research facility has hired more than a half-dozen of the students who competed in previous underwater trials here. This is the seventh year it’s been held in San Diego and more universities are participating every year.

“Unmanned robotics are probably the next generation revolution,” Koepenick said, “and there’s a lot of kids interested in the technology. There’s growth in the industry, and in many cases these young competitors come up with some good ideas pretty quickly, unencumbered by the politics. Plus they’re doing it on dramatically different budgets.”

Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars, these teams are spending tens of thousands to build their models, finding sponsorships from companies and research institutions with an interest in unmanned underwater systems. The big challenge in this competition is that in the final mission the subs are not remote controlled. Rather, they have to navigate under obstacles and towards targets autonomously, pre-programmed to know what they’re looking for.

Baird Hendricks of North Carolina State University shows off his system to track pinging sounds underwater.
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Above: Baird Hendricks of North Carolina State University shows off his system to track pinging sounds underwater.

“I got like four hours of sleep last night,” mutters one competitor, his baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, “it’s not working well at the moment.” Gary Stein of the University of Central Florida is hunched over a laptop, trying to get it to record video from their submersible, “The Citronaught.” It’s weaving somewhat erratically on the other side of the pool.

“Sometimes it’s fun,” Stein says, “it’s the challenge of making the submersible do what you want it to do. Today, it’s been a very bad robot. It got some water in its eyes, some cameras let on some water, and we had to fix that, we had to dry some things out.”

Not every team will qualify for the trials that begin today. Keeping water out of the software is a basic prerequisite.

The team from North Carolina has a submersible housed in what looks like a waterproof briefcase. Sitting in a tent with his team, waiting for their turn to launch, Baird Hendricks said it’s not just about programming the subs to respond to visual cues. The final mission of the competition, he said, is to home in a one of two pinging sounds, and hover over the source.

“You have to figure out where the pinging is in relation to your craft.” Hendricks said, “You have sound that bounces off the wall, comes back to you, there’s all sorts of weird effects with sound you don’t get with vision. It’s a very hard system, it’s one of the systems that’ll make or break a team here.”

The team that mastered this task last year was the one that beat everyone else in the competition, Hendrick said. He’s not sure yet if his software is up to the task. But if it isn’t, he’s fully prepared to come back next year, armed with the experience of competing with the some of the most ingenious student minds in the nation.

The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition is sponsored by the International Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems and the Office of Naval Research. It’s open to the public Friday through Sunday, August 2.

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