Tech

June 26, 2012

Whatever floats your roboboat: competition engages students in STEM

by Katherine H. Crawford
Arlington, Va.

An international lineup of university teams raced custom-built autonomous surface vehicles at the fifth annual RoboBoat competition, held June 20-24 in Virginia Beach, Va.

The competition-sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation-is an autonomous robotics challenge where teams put their ASVs through a marked navigation channel and a series of challenges.

The goal is to boost student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to inspire them to follow a naval career in these fields.

This year’s winner was the University of Michigan, whose team took home $7,000 in prize money. Villanova University earned second place and $5,000; Embry Riddle Aeronautical University took third and $3,000; and the University of Central Florida was fourth, earning $3,000. Smaller awards of $500 in various categories went to Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University and Indonesia’s Diponegoro University.

“Sailors and Marines have already felt the impact of robotics in combat and aboard ship,” said Kelly Cooper, program officer, ONR Sea Platforms and Weapons division. “Encouraging STEM students to learn about theoretical and practical robotics will be enormously helpful for a possible future in the Navy workforce that directly affects the quality and capability of the robots our Sailors and Marines will use.”

Teams were evaluated on their ASVs’ design and performance at this year’s event, which had a casino and gaming theme. The design component focused on system innovation and quality of engineering and construction; the performance piece looked at each vehicle’s ability to execute specific autonomous missions.

Teams had 20 minutes to complete a mandatory channel navigation task and any optional challenge tasks. The channel navigation task demonstrated an ASV’s visual sensor and guidance integration, speed and ability to navigate a channel and had to be completed before proceeding to the optional challenge stations. Both the navigation and challenge tasks had to be performed without any human direction.

The challenge stations were modeled on card and casino games. For example, the “Poker Chip” station involved trying to retrieve a token from a dock; the “Jackpot” station required team ASVs to locate and push a button; and the “Cheater’s Hand” station required teams to find a land-based target and shoot water into a designated target area.

This year’s 18 participating teams hailed from 17 universities in four countries. The other participating institutions were Bradley University, Cedarville University, Florida Atlantic University, Georgia Tech, Stevens Institute of Technology, University of Rhode Island and the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as India’s Delhi Technological University and Indonesia’s Universitas Indonesia.

“Each year the number of competing universities continues to grow, and the journal papers submitted as part of the competition make it very clear that the team members will be well-prepared individually to enter the Navy STEM workforce,” Cooper said.

RoboBoat is one of several robotic competitions that ONR sponsors through a grant to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation. This grant stimulates STEM competitions at all education levels to inspire and teach the next generation of naval architects and marine and weapon system engineers, Cooper said. These student competitions prepare the Department of the Navy’s future workforce to meet tomorrow’s technological challenges.

ONR provides the science and technology necessary to maintain the Navy and Marine Corps’ technological advantage. Through its affiliates, ONR is a leader in science and technology with engagement in 50 states, 30 countries, 1,035 institutions of higher learning and more than 900 industry partners. ONR employs approximately 1,065 people, comprising uniformed, civilian and contract personnel, with additional employees at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.




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