Looking for Pearls: Gray’s Reef hosts underwater robotic competition for Savannah students

Think of the boxing-ring announcer. Think of the energy of the fans.

 

I missed the opening moments at the Chatham County Aquatic Center on April 22. But in that cavernous hall — with acoustics that echo like you’re inside a whale — I can hear Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s Jody Patterson stir the crowd as she stretches out her five words: “Let’s get ready to robot!

You’ve heard the expression “the smartest guys in the room.” Well, the center that day hosted “the smartest kids at the pool.” Sixteen student teams from across the state were there for the annual Gray’s Reef MATE ROV competition.

There was electricity in the air, and, carefully controlled, in the water, too. MATE is the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center, headquartered in Monterey, Calif. ROVs are remotely operated vehicles designed for underwater work.

Each year Gray’s Reef organizes the Southeast regional competition and assists students and teachers in their advance preparation. The event is a run-up to the MATE international competition.

The international theme for 2017 is “Port Cities of the Future.” The scenario is that the Port of Long Beach has issued a request for proposals for ROVs to perform delicate underwater construction and maintenance tasks, as well as environmental cleanup and safety mapping.

This work is high-tech, but it is STEM heaven. Essentially teams had to form companies to submit proposals to the client. In Savannah, they were scored on their marketing posters, engineering interviews, technical reports, safety inspections and the ROV demonstrations.

The demos were the pool missions, and that’s where the rubber meets the chlorine. I was amazed at the grace under pressure and the workplace-grade professional concentration of the middle- and high-school teams.

Some spectators watched through binoculars, but most crowded around the high-definition screens to watch the underwater video feed. Parents were using lots of body English as they urged the ROVS from a distance. And their hands flew up touchdown-fashion when an ROV nailed it.

Patterson told me the teams could compete at one of three levels they chose, depending only on their skill sets and experience. “Middle-school teams can compete against college teams; that happened last year.”

I was standing next to one team during their set-up period when they encountered a problem with their power supply. The ROV pilot, a boy about 12, did quick troubleshooting. “Three, two, one, clear.” Then, to the tether-handler, “It’s not a fuse problem. Go get the multimeter kit, stat! But walk, don’t run; this is a pool.”

A young girl who was her team’s co-pilot had to decide on whether to swap out a shaky pressure sensor. “I think water got into it. The seal should hold.” Her teammate said, “It’s your call. You built it.”

Three local teams competed, and they all did well. They were the Groves High Rebelbotics, the Jenkins High Submersibles and the STEM Academy at Bartlett Aqua Apparatus.

Kathryn Sukkestad, science educator at Groves, was thrilled with her team’s performance. “This is only our second year, and we placed both times. And the students engineered our ROV 100 percent.”

Her team has met every Wednesday after school since August, perfecting the design and building on what they learned from last year. This year they used a lightweight metal instead of PVC.

“The big step forward was the ROV’s diamond shape, a departure from the generally used cube designs. The Gray’s Reef judges told us that it was the most innovative design they had seen.” And that earned Groves the additional honor of the Dreamweaver Award for Innovation in Design, in the Ranger class.

Sukkestad said the team really benefited from an engineering seminar at Armstrong State University earlier in the year. “The students got to meet NASA and Georgia Tech engineers, contacts that have already influenced their college trajectories.”

They named their ROV “Tyfonas,” from the Greek for typhoon. That seems to describe not only its performance, but also the whirlwind of ingenuity that went into it.

Sukkestad said, “They built it all by hand; no 3-D printers; just regular garage tools. The frame, the vacuum, buoyancy, propulsion, lighting and video surveillance systems. They researched every component.”

Sukkestad credited science department chair Rebecca Alt, the Garden City Recreation Department for pool time to test fly the ROV and local supporters for backing the team.

William Hanna of Bartlett was just as happy with his eighth-graders’ performance. “This is our fourth year at the event, and we competed at the advanced level. We had 20 students participate in the ROV class this year, with our Principal Peter Ulrich a prime supporter. … The MATE program develops the whole underwater robotics enchilada. I like the entrepreneurial dimension. Some students work on programming and circuitry; others work on fundraising, marketing and presentations.”

The team pilot, his back to the water, concentrated on the video display and expertly maneuvered the ROV, while his assistant monitored the sensors and recorded spatial data, and the tether manager kept the connections intact.

The team won a special Duct Tape Award for Outstanding Effort in Troubleshooting, in the Ranger class. And, a big deal, they also earned the highest score in technical writing at the event.

Hanna noted that most of Bartlett’s students will continue to Jenkins High next year and will bring good depth to that robotics team. Jenkins science teacher Dan Genrich agreed.

“This was our first year participating in the Gray’s Reef event, and it has really gotten our students excited. The competition in this great arena, interacting with other teams, getting new design ideas — you can’t beat it.”

Wolfpack Robotics from North Paulding High won this year and goes to the internationals competition this summer in Long Beach, Calif. But I see all this local talent developing ROVs to service the Georgia Ports Authority.And one day to travel untethered from shore to Gray’s Reef itself.

An ROV that is today on a Groves, Jenkins or Bartlett drawing board.

Ben Goggins, a retired marine biologist, lives on Tybee Island. He can be reached at 912-786-6181 or bengoggins9@gmail.com.

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