Students Win 5th in International RoboBoat Competition

7/19/2011

A student team from Stevens Institute of Technology made a splash at the AUVSI Foundation 4th International RoboBoat Competition, where the group's custom-built autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) placed fifth overall and was recognized with an award for Best Rookie Performance. Held on June 9-12 in Virginia Beach and co-hosted by the Office of Naval Research and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the International RoboBoat Competition was a robotics challenge for college students that race ASVs of their own design through a challenging aquatic obstacle course.

"Competitions like these are an important component in educating the next generation of engineers," says Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the School of Engineering and Science. "The Stevens team's successful integration of many engineering elements showcases the talent of our students and the dedication of our faculty."

The Stevens ASV resulted from a year's labor on a multi-disciplinary Senior Design project. Naval Engineering students included Peter McCauley, John Kutcher, and Heather Tomaszek. Mechanical Engineering students included Derek Straub, Laura Barito, Ernie Guaimano, and Justin Wenthold. Computer Science students included Scott Knehr and Danielle Fabiyan. Advisors were Research Associate Michael DeLorme, Research Associate Professor of Naval Engineering and Ocean Engineering Dr. Raju Datla, and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. Frank Fisher. The students were also advised in some of the technical aspects of autonomous vehicles by Center for Maritime Systems Research Engineer Paul Sammut.

Fifteen teams hit the water at this year's events, many of them veterans of the RoboBoat Competition. Before the action started, judges rated the teams based on their research papers, project Web sites, oral presentations, and the overall appearance of the boat. After this static judging and the qualifying round of performance, the Stevens team was placed second for the finals.

The obstacle course, designed by the competition organizers to "push the envelope" in level of difficulty, was marked in the water by colored buoys, through and around which the teams had to navigate to accomplish a number of tasks, such as grabbing a tennis ball and delivering it to land. All of these actions were to be executed autonomously by the vehicle, which was required to be completely self-sufficient once it entered the water. "The fact that it thinks for itself is the coolest aspect of the project," reports Naval Engineering student John Kutcher.

Considering the complexity of the tasks, the timed final round was especially intense for all participants. Team member Laura Barito, an NCAA national champion in both swimming and track and field, reported, "I never got this nervous during meets." Ultimately, Stevens netted a fifth place finish and $1,500 in total prize money.

"I am thrilled with their finish in the finals, but it is the Best Rookie Team award that I think is the most revealing," says DeLorme. "The team built an autonomous vehicle from scratch and performed as well as or better than some of the previous years' finalists. Their performance was a terrific experience for the students as well as the advisors, and has initiated strong momentum for subsequent ASV design teams in future competitions."

Beyond the winning berth and the technical knowledge gained, the students also agreed that the opportunity to work with engineers from different disciplines was one of the project's most rewarding aspects. This provided take-away lessons about engineering project management and the benefits of building diversity into teams. The Office of Naval Research also hopes to take lessons learned at the competition and apply them back to real-world problems in naval engineering and autonomous vehicles. As several members of the Stevens team are continuing on to civilian service with the US Navy, the competition has supplied poignant experience for their careers.

The AUVSI Foundation is a non-profit established to support the educational initiatives of AUVSI. The Foundation focuses on the future of the robotics industry by developing programs, like the RoboBoat Competition, that attract and equip students for careers in this growing field. To date, the AUVSI Foundation has awarded nearly $1 million in prize money to participants since launching competitions in 1991.

"The challenge of autonomous navigation provides a great learning experience for students from many different fields," DeLorme says. "I encourage any Stevens student, from freshmen to rising seniors, with an interest in this field to come talk to us now and get on board for the future."

Visit the Stevens ASV Project Web site for more information.