Battle of the RoboSubs: Young Engineers Compete for Underwater Supremacy

By Sierra Jones 
Office of Naval Research

After months of planning, building, programming, testing and tweaking, it all came to down to this one moment-the 19th annual International RoboSub Competition, held in San Diego, California, July 25-30.

Forty-six teams competed in this year’s event-sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation. The robotics contest challenges students to design, build and race submarines through a complex obstacle course, where points are awarded for the number and difficulty of successfully completed mission tasks.

“RoboSub showcases the talents of high school and college students from around the world,” said Kelly Cooper, a program officer in ONR’s Sea Warfare and Weapons, Ship Systems and Engineering Research Division. “This year saw our largest competitor field ever. To be successful, each team had to use their creative engineering skills to construct vehicles to navigate the course and its realistic missions-all autonomously.”

The mission theme for this year’s contest was “A Pirate’s Life for Thee,” and required teams to navigate an obstacle course made of PVC pipes; “weigh anchor” by dropping markers within a predetermined area; “set course” by shooting mock torpedoes through a cutout; “scuttle a ship”-essentially touching buoys and pulling a surface ship underwater; and “bury a treasure” by finding an object emitting a sonar signal, grabbing the object and then moving and releasing it.

Team members from the California Institute of Technology display their submarine at the 19th annual International RoboSub Competition, held in San Diego, California, July 25-30. The team finished first in this year's event. (Photo courtesy of AUVSI Foundation)

Team members from the California Institute of Technology display their submarine at the 19th annual International RoboSub Competition, held in San Diego, California, July 25-30. The team finished first in this year’s event. (Photo courtesy of AUVSI Foundation)

In addition to building the autonomous underwater vehicle, teams were also responsible for creating websites, videos and writing journal papers outlining their work.

“This event allows participants to not only demonstrate their engineering skills, but also their academic knowledge,” said Cooper. “Both are vital aptitudes for students as they enter into the workforce-naval or otherwise.”

The hope is that these students will turn their excitement and interest for RoboSub into a future designing and building advanced unmanned capabilities for our warfighters, explained Cooper.

“It’s important we continue our involvement in events like this,” said Cooper. “For naval forces, autonomous systems represent a rapidly expanding field, so it’s essential we continue to reach out and connect the needs and interests of the naval community with the engineers of the future.”

California Institute of Technology was this year’s biggest winner, bringing home the top prize of $6,000. Indian Institute of Technology Bombay won second prize and $5,000; Cornell University took third and $2,000; G.I. Nevelskoy Maritime State University came in fourth, earning $1,500; Kasetsart University and Chulalongkorn University secured fifth place and $1,500; Harbin Engineering University placed sixth, taking home $1,000; and McGill University took seventh and $1,000.

Special awards went to the National University of Singapore and McGill University for static judging, Ohio State University for the best technical paper and Northwestern Polytechnical University as the best new team.

Other U.S. teams included: Amador Valley High School; Beaver Country Day School; Carl Hayden High School; Coleman University; Duke University; East Los Angeles College; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; Georgia Institute of Technology; Kennesaw State University; Montana State University; North Carolina State University; Oregon Institute of Technology; Prairie View A&M University; San Diego City College; San Diego Robotics 101; San Diego State University; St. George School; Texas A&M University; University of Arizona; University of California Riverside; University of Central Florida; University of Colorado Boulder; University of Florida; University of Southern California; Utah State University; and Washington State University.

International teams included: Brazil’s Federal University of Rio de Janeiro; Canada’s École de Technologie Supérieure, University of Alberta, University of Toronto and University of Victoria; India’s SRM University, Team BangaloreRobotics; Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology; and Russia’s Far-Eastern Federal University.

Sierra Jones is a contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications.

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