Debbie Croft: Students rise to the top in underwater robotics

05/31/2014 12:00 AM

05/30/2014 3:11 PM

School students sat recently at an Oakhurst pool testing their latest class projects. With their backs to the water, they operated underwater robots while keeping their eyes on a small video monitor.

The trial run was held as part of Eric Hagen’s underwater robotics class. Hagen is the technology administrator and assistant principal at Mountain Home School Charter and Glacier High School Charter. This is his sixth year with the program.

“When I started I knew nothing, except for basic electronics,” he said.

Through experimentation and by attending workshops, his knowledge increased.

The class is part of the Marine Advanced Technology Education Remotely Operated Vehicle (MATE ROV) student program. About 20 students, divided into five teams, were busy preparing for an upcoming competition.

Designing, constructing and operating an underwater robot is a challenging way for students to learn problem solving, mechanical engineering, software writing and communication, and other valuable life skills.

Their ages range from upper elementary through high school and beyond, with categories appropriate to their age and skill levels: scout (beginner level), navigator and ranger (intermediate) and explorer (expert).

PVC pipes and joints were used to build the robot frames. Attached to frames are propellers, a motor, a camera, hydraulic pump, clear rubber hoses, electrical wires and circuits, and foam for insulating wires and pipes. A tether connects the control box to the frame. Additional equipment might include a claw, netting, lights, a syringe or instruments used to measure water clarity and temperature.

ROVs are unoccupied and highly maneuverable, operated by a crew aboard a ship. Or as in this case, by students on the ground.

“In a timed format,” Hagen explained, “teams must identify and preserve a shipwreck, using a list of dates, ports of origin, and cargo.”

The “shipwreck” was a cube approximately 4 to 5 feet square, also made of plastic pipes.

A list of designated missions had to be completed within 15 minutes. If the robot malfunctioned, students made repairs using tools and supplies provided nearby. Then they would continue their missions, hoping to finish within the allotted time.

Hagen’s daughters, Emma and Olivia, are Mountain Home students and part of his class. Their scout team, called H2O, includes Daniel Peters and Abby Rumohr.

In the trials Emma’s turn was cut short by a broken switch. The repair was made, but time ran out.

“We can practice some more at my grandma’s pool,” she said. “Thankfully at competition we get two tries.”

Parents and a few of Hagen’s co-workers volunteered to act as judges, a safety inspector, a diver and a timer. Judges followed a simple rubric, for evaluating underwater performance and poster displays, and in conducting team interviews. They asked questions regarding design, function, and problems or challenges they faced before or during competition.

Justin Talley is on the navigator team Underwater Innovation. This is his third year in the class.

His mom, Cindy, said, “Last year his team won the Guts and Glory award, because almost everything that could have gone wrong did. But they persevered and kept a great attitude.”

Connor Wallace of the Techno Geeks described parts and functionality. “Air-filled tubes with caps add buoyancy for diving capabilities, allowing the ROV to go deeper without completely sinking.”

Having a solid understanding of buoyancy and basic electricity is important.

After a successful trial run and final repairs, on May 3 the Oakhurst teams went to Monterey County for the MATE ROV regional competition. Aptos High School welcomed 60 teams (over 200 students) from all over California to its campus for the event.

Exploring the Great Lakes is the theme of this year’s competition. Teams analyzed shipwrecks, documented their findings and studied sinkholes. The work done by ROVs is part of conserving our national maritime heritage sites, according to the MATE website.

Following the competition Hagen was thrilled to announce that “all five teams performed among the top ten.”

The International MATE ROV Competition will be held next month at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Michigan for regional competition winners.

For more information, visit www.nps.gove/archeology//submerged/intro.htm and www.thunderbay.noaa.gov. Educators interesting in learning more about the program may contact Hagen at (559) 642-1422, ext. 16, or by email at ehagen@glacierhighcharter.org.

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