Students dive into robotics through SeaPerch program

A robot carries a plastic bottle back to the edge of the swimming pool in the clean up challenge.

LEWISTOWN — Learning about robotics, engineering, science and mathematics, while building a Remotely Operative Vehicle, is part of Rebecca Conner’s technology class curriculum at Mifflin County High School.

Using the SeaPerch underwater robotics program, partially designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Conner’s students have been busy designing and building their own ROV from scratch using a few basic materials such as PVC pipe, small motors, pool noodles, netting and tape.

Once complete, the students got the chance to test out the underwater robots in the swimming pool at the Juniata Valley YMCA, in Burnham.

Leading up to the ROV competition, students were divided up into three or four member teams and were challenged to come up with an idea, discuss the idea among members and figure out which design suited each challenge best.

“The most important part is creating a custom design to meet the challenge,” Conner said. “I want them to find a way to be successful.”

A robot works to push pods off a frame at the bottom of the pool in the recovery challenge.

Conner provided the teams with a description of the six challenges so the teams could start planning how to modify their robot for each trial.

Changing the direction of the four motors on the robot or rotating the PVC pipe vertically or horizontally were some of the ways the robot could be altered.

The six challenges each team competed in were, depth test, recovery, speed test, retrieval, retrieval race and cleanup. Teams would be disqualified if their ROV sank right away.

If a team was unable to complete any task on the first try, they had the opportunity to modify the robot and retest the design at least two more times.

The depth test challenge tested the ROV’s ability to fully submerge in water. The ROV was timed by a judge to see which team could touch the pool floor and resurface the fastest.

Zachery Poff films a robot in action at the Remotely Operative Vehicle underwater robotics challenge on Nov. 22, at the Juniata Valley YMCA.

The recovery challenge tested the ROV’s performance and manoeuvrability of the team’s design. In this trial, the ROV had to recover pods from the pool floor by pushing them off the holder using the robot’s frame. Again the ROV is timed at how quickly it can bring all five pods to the surface.

The speed challenge tests the ROV’s overall speed from the “start/finish” wall.

In the retrieval challenge, the ROV must race to a buoy at the end of the lane. There, the ROV will submerge and resurface inside the buoy and drag it back to the finish wall. The fastest time wins the competition.

To test a team’s teamwork skills, the retrieval race allows the team to work in a group scenario. Team one races to grab the buoy at the end of the lane and drag it back to the finish line. Once the buoy touches the wall, team two releases its ROV to perform the same task. Fastest time wins.

Clean up tests a ROV’s manoeuvrability to push back as many plastic bottles as possible to the edge of the pool within three minutes. Various sizes of bottles garner different amounts of points, however, some bottles are labeled “hazards” costing the team points if touched. The highest score wins this challenge.

Conner said each challenge can simulate a real-world need. The clean up challenge shows how a robot could be used for pollution control and the depth challenge shows how a lost item could be recovered from the bottom of a lake. She said the retrieval challenge could simulate an animal stranded on icy waters.

“We can’t safely get the animal, but the robot can,” Conner said. “We have a device help us when we can’t do it ourselves.”

At the pool test, all three of Conner’s classes were able to finally look at other team’s ROV designs.

Senior Brandon Walters, who was a judge at last year’s competition, said there was a lot of room for improvement from last year in both design and equipment.

Walters and his one teammate Margo Wolfgang said they designed their robot to be a little more flat so it had little drag through the water.

Walters was concerned with looking for improvements in the rigging of the robot.

Wolfgang was excited to see how the robots did against each other.

“It’s a neat experience,” Wolfgang said. “I never did anything like this before.”

Teams were not only graded on the pool tests, but also on their teamwork, professionalism, display board, which featured the team’s logo, team name and colors and how they built the robot.

The winning team earned bragging rights.

Conner said she was thankful the YMCA allowed the class to use its pool for the testing.

“I hope to see what this class can turn into in the future,” Walters said.