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Underwater Robots Race For Glory In Point Loma

Evening Edition

Some of the best and brightest students from 34 schools are in San Diego this week putting their brains to work, underwater. The city's 17th annual robotic submarine competition is underway on Point Loma.

These aren't your father's submarine races. In fact, it's not likely that dad could've put together the intricate computers bottled-up in hopefully water-tight cases.

"This is the first year that we've gone to a dual hull design," said Mark Lee, who's on the Cornell University team that built a robot called the Gemini.

"In previous years, we've actually had the electronics enclosed in a single hull. This year we wanted to improve our access to our custom electronics. So you see in the back hull we have all of our student-designed and student-manufactured circuit boards."

Yes, students built and designed the circuit boards. They chose the engines. They designed the cameras and sensors that let the submarine see. And they wrote the computer code that runs everything.

"My project this year was working on the battery pods, that's basically a lithium polymer pad, and I made a board that allows for the safe charging and discharging of those pads," said Melissa Hamad, one of 40 undergrads on the Cornell Team. She worked on the power source. "Because they're pretty volatile."

It's a pretty important piece of the puzzle, because without power, the robotic sub won't do anything in the water. Darryl Davidson is the executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation. That's the group that put together the competition. He said the competitors bring state of the art robots.

"When you figure out no one is controlling the submarine once it submerges, that it's doing all of these very difficult tasks on its own, that's when you understand how complex that really is," he said. "Because if you had a student driving the sub around the course they would all do it pretty easily."

Seventeen years ago, when the competition first began, it was quite different from what's going on in the Point Loma pool today.

"The very first year we did this there were four teams," Davidson said. "It was a challenge for any of those teams to get in the water and move in a straight line. What we now are up to are 38 teams from all over the world that get out here."

Davidson said the straight-line hurdle only qualifies teams to compete now. In the finals, the robots are required to go through underwater gates, navigate a winding course, recognize different colored buoys and even pick up objects. He said the technology is complex and it requires a variety of skill sets. Perhaps most importantly, Davidson said, it requires planning.

"It requires them to be very broad in their thinking," he said. "Then to organize and manage their time. Because they're doing this while they're still students and they're doing all the work still required of students."

And while most of the teams are from colleges around the world, high school teams can qualify. Karan Samel goes to Emery Valley High School in Northern California. His team was dealing with a difficult bit of luck. Their robot moved well enough underwater, but failed to find the right colored buoys. It ended up skipping an obstacle.

"It was a disaster in the fact that it didn't work as we wanted it to, but if we can change a few things it should be fine," Samel said. "We think it'll be good."

The team had hoped for cloudy conditions during their run, but the sun was out and that hindered their robot's sensors. Samel and the team were working in a practice pool to try and fix the problem before a late afternoon run.

"We always have different problems every single year," he said. "So, I mean, the challenges are all there but now you just have more experiences you can build on, when you run into a problem or whatnot. So maybe a bit easier, but still quite challenging."

If the Emery High team corrects their issue, they could be competing on Sunday. That's when the best team of the competition will be crowned.

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