School Robotics Team Shines In ROV Competition

Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) International ROV Competition fosters industry interest


here is nothing that gets young people inspired by science, technology, engineering and mathematics quite as much as the prospect of building a robot. Solving real-life problems may be the core of the discipline of engineering, but solving them with a remotely operated underwater vehicle you have built yourself looks pretty impressive too.

Fostering an interest in STEM subjects among younger generations is not only good for their personal income and career prospects; it is the key to ensuring future scientific development for the world at large, and improves economic competitiveness for nation states. The supply of engineering graduates in the UK falls well short of demand, a shortfall of at least 20,000 annually[Display footnote number:1]. In the United States, the deficit of American STEM graduates could top 1.1 million by 2024[Display footnote number:2].

However, it remains an uphill battle to convince students to choose a science or engineering career in post-secondary studies. One way of possibly bridging this gap is by encouraging the development of programs to help students see STEM subjects in the context of real-life challenges rather than something compulsory that ends once the bell rings.

One ROV to rule them all

One such program is the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) International ROV Competition. Currently in its 19th year, the annual competition encourages school and university teams from all over the world to design and build their own small, manoeuvrable underwater robots and then remotely operate them in a series of challenges in simulated underwater environments.

Preparing to compete against the world’s best student robotics teams is no simple task. Participating teams have to organise and manage their teams as mock companies, complete with a corporate management structure. Last year, 68 teams survived competitive regional qualifying events to proceed to the international finals in Kingsport, Tennessee. A city established at the confluence of the north and south forks of the Holston River, the location perfectly matched the 2019 competition’s focus on exploring and maintaining lakes and waterways.

Developing more complex, compact designs

One of the 68 teams is Jesuit Robotics from the Jesuit High School in Carmichael, California. This was far from their first rodeo though; the school has taken part in the MATE competition for a number of years. In 2017, the team identified a design challenge: connectors were holding back their ROV design.

“In 2017, we didn’t have a good modular connector solution that was small and cost-effective,” chief technical officer of the team, Michael Equi explained. With the 2018 challenge focused on tasks in coastal areas, the team knew they had to find a better solution if they wanted to remain competitive.

“The way we plan is a year in advance,” said Joe Watanabe, the team’s lead mechanical engineer. “We start with meetings, design meetings that explain what we’re going to do for the year, with our ROV, and then throughout the year, until the beginning of the competition, we put that all into practice, by designing, testing and then building our production ROV.”

The team embarked on a search for the right connector, and came across Bulgin, a manufacturer of rugged connectors for harsh environments. The team selected the 400 Mini Series PX0413/03P[Display footnote number:3] rear panel mount connectors for their designs. The PX0413/03P is a rear panel mount connector that is water and dustproof to IP68 when mated with a compatible connector such as the PX0400, PX0402 or PX0410.

Providing reliable power connections up to 250V/10A, the 400 Mini Series is one of the most compact connectors in the Buccaneer range and is ideal for designs requiring a small footprint to give designers greater flexibility.

With its secure and easy screw thread locking mechanism and IP68 rating, the 400 Mini Series connectors have demonstrated proven power connections in harsh conditions, including marine environments and industrial applications. The range offers chemical and heat resistance with its UL94V-0 flammability rating, and also have Marine Severity Level 1 approval.

“[The connector is] the product that’s shrunken the size of our ROV, by making them more modular and cost-effective,” said Equi.

Enabling autonomous features

The tasks in the 2019 MATE finals included repairing a hydroelectric dam and environmental monitoring. “We had to add more autonomous features, which required better vision capabilities, so we started implementing these digital vision systems that required a lot of bandwidth, particularly ethernet bandwidth,” said Equi. “That’s why we used Bulgin, so that we could keep our connections waterproof and keep our modularity while still having a gigabit connection between the ROV and our topside computers.”

A podium place achievement

The team’s CEO, Caelin Sutch said that when they arrived in Kingsport for the finals, the team had been heavily focused on testing, which ultimately delivered a good end result. The team achieved third place overall and won a selection of other awards in addition to this.

“I’m really happy with how we did,” said a smiling Sutch. He also paid tribute to the support offered by Bulgin, adding that they had provided the team with something that they had been unable to find elsewhere.

The results from the collaboration have been so positive that Bulgin subsequently announced in 2019 that it would offer free engineering support and connector samples to all school teams taking part in the annual MATE competition as a way of showing support and appreciation for students interested in pursuing STEM disciplines.

For the team’s head coach, Jay Isaacs, it wasn’t so much the awards that counted as much as the team spirit he witnessed at the event.

“There are so many things that really make me proud of the team but … one is that we spend a lot of time helping other teams,” he said, adding that it was characteristically selfless of the team to offer their help simply because they wanted to allow others to have the chance of competing in the finals rather than let them be disqualified because of lastminute problems.

“The other thing [that makes me proud] is that things do go wrong, and their ability to take adversity, turn that around and stay the course. That’s part of what we work on with the students during the year [to remind them that] not everything works out but you still have to continue, you cannot give up.”

The brief for the 2020 MATE ROV competition will be to design and build a remotely operated vehicle with sensors and tools to tackle ocean plastics, coral bleaching and water pollution — a timely cause that will no doubt inspire many young people concerned with these issues to take part and hopefully be inspired to e-mbark on a career in STEM to make a difference in the world.