Students design underwater robot that does more than score points

June 1, 2012 By Nancy Gohring, University of Washington
UW students Tysen Mulder, Taylor Juve, Scott Daley (left to right, crouching), Brian auf der Springe and Ryan Cox (standing behind) launch the robot during a recent regional competition. Credit: Trina Litchendorf

( -- Since he was 12 years old and successfully talked his way onto an underwater robotics club for kids aged 13 and up, Trevor Uptain has been building robots of the kind used by oceanographers and industry.

Now a sophomore at the University of Washington, he helped start a club that in just four months has already qualified to participate in an international underwater robotics competition coordinated by the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center and taking place in Florida next month.

But unlike most other competitors, this team of 16 UW undergraduates from a variety of disciplines has decided to over-engineer their so that at the UW can use it in the field. While the competition requires the robot to descend 5.2 meters, or 17 feet, to the bottom of an indoor swimming pool, the UW team is designing its device to be used in saltwater and withstand pressure to a depth of at least 100 meters.

Equipped with three and a pneumatically powered that can grasp items underwater, the robot is the size of a large . A supplies electrical power to the device, which moves with the help of four off-the-shelf trolling motors typically used on . Another line supplies air to open and close the gripper.

The idea to design the robot for use in the field came about with help from Rick Rupan, a research engineer in the School of Oceanography who has been involved with MATE competitions for six years. He regularly gets requests from oceanographers looking for underwater robots to use in their research.

When he recently got such a request, "I thought, well, I don't have the budget to get one, but I do know that there are motivated around and so I thought this was an area to kill two birds with one stone," said Rupan, who then suggested that the club build their robot for use in the field.

Taylor Juve and Trevor Uptain work on the robot’s thruster motors. Credit: Trina Litchendorf

Typically, UW oceanographers who are doing research in the Puget Sound must hire a company to deploy an underwater robot. The robots do things like retrieve and deploy scientific instruments from the floor of the sound and collect samples underwater.

Miles Logsdon, a senior lecturer in the School of Oceanography, expects to be one of the first to use the student's robot in the field when he begins mapping part of the seafloor of the Puget Sound later this summer.

"This is huge," he said of the opportunity to have access to the robot. "We don't have one with this versatility here at the UW."

He won't need the robot to descend far from the surface for his upcoming project but said that its superior maneuverability will allow his boat to stay relatively stationary while the device moves around it.

The students have worked hard to design the robot to be easily configurable for a variety of uses. "What they’ve built is a platform," Logsdon said. Different instruments can be attached to it, for instance, depending on the particular research project.

Having competed in underwater robot contests for years, Uptain is particularly pleased to see this one put to good use. "The faculty has been so supportive. They send people down all the time to talk to us and give us advice. I want this to be used for something beyond scoring points," he said.

In addition to having the satisfaction that their product will be used by researchers, the students will get the opportunity to do real field work. "This isn't our vessel, it's theirs," said Logsdon. Researchers will ask the students for use of the robot, which the students will modify for the particular project and operate from a ship in the field.

Some faculty members have used their own research grants to help fund the project, which Uptain estimates cost about $8,000, including donated labor and equipment from companies including Williamson and Associates, Sound Ocean Systems, B & B Fabricators and Janicki Industries.

Uptain and Rupan hope to turn the club into an accredited course whose students will build a new vehicle every two years that can be used by researchers. They were particularly keen to compete this year since the 2013 international competition will take place in Seattle.

Because the competition in Florida is designed to encourage teams to act like a business that is hired to complete a mission, the club is attractive to students with a variety of interests including accounting, engineering, computer science and oceanography.

"If you're from any major, we'll find a place for you," Uptain said. "You'll get to build an underwater robot and everyone wants to do that."

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