Intern robotics team earns berth to international contest
Third time’s the charm: this summer, a team of Smithsonian interns learned the truth of that saying by earning a spot in an international marine robotics competition.
by Michelle Z. Donahue
High schoolers Emma Bennett, Kendall Lee, Barry Smith and Nick Stange first came together three years ago, in 2015, to form the Smithsonian Marine Station’s first student-intern underwater robotics team. Mentored by SMS research assistant Woody Lee, the team worked each year to design, built, test and enter a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in a regional marine robotics contest.
In May 2018, the team won the Florida regional Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) competition, beating out over 27 other high school teams. That netted them a shot at the at the International MATE ROV Ranger Competition held in the Tacoma-area city of Federal Way, Washington in late June.
Accompanied by Lee and their respective families, Smithsonian STEM ROV team participated alongside 65 high school and college teams from 19 countries, including 31 other American regional teams. During the competition, teams are tasked with putting their robots through several underwater skills challenges that simulate real-world situations a working ROV might be expected to handle.
This year’s challenges included recovering a simulated engine from a crashed World War 2 bomber after calculating its likely position in the water given a set of trajectory points; installing a mock tidal power-generating turbine, such as those currently being deployed in the Puget Sound; and taking and placing seagrass sample plugs.
Lee noted that though the event is called a competition, the teams aren’t pitting their robots against one another, battle-bots style, but maximizing their individual team scores. “Teams just flat out helped each other,” he said.
And it’s also not just an engineering challenge: teams are expected to give an oral presentation of their design approach, as well as present a business plan for the manufacture, market and sales of their ROV product.
“That’s the neat thing about this competition: it’s not just the geeky side of building the robot and driving it around,” said Lee. “The students had to form a company with officers and a budget, and also give an engineering talk about how the sub works and how they designed for all the different skills. So it’s really all-encompassing.”
Lee guided the intern team through the technical build-out and any issues the students had with fabrication, but they did all the hands-on work of building the robot, its power supply, figuring out buoyancy, control and guidance. Bennett’s mother, also named Emma, coached the team through the skills they’d need to present effective oral and written sessions.
And though the team needed hands-on help in past years due to their youth and inexperience, Lee said that was definitely not the case this year.
“It’s been amazing to see just how much these students have matured and are now thinking much more critically,” Lee said. “After three years together, they’re thinking a lot more about anticipating problems and ready to do a workaround. It was all them.”