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ROV Design and Build: Do Try This at Home
by Andrea Cohen, MIT Sea Grant

The recent storms had let up and Sarah Thain was delicately piloting a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) down through the wreckage of the Titanic to retrieve 20 lost scientific probes. Luckily she's been building and guiding ROVs for one-third of her life—since she was 8.

White Rock South Surrey Home Educators (BC, Canada) teammate Beckie Thain and ROV Nina Harper, which tied for first place in the 12-25 competition class at The 2nd Annual International ROV competition.

Sarah and her sister Beckie, 14, comprised one of the 33 teams of high school, home school, college, and university students competing in the 2nd Annual International ROV Competition organized by the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center and the Marine Technology Society's (MTS) ROV Committee. The event was held at MIT on June 19-21. The "Titanic"—in fact there were two of them—was actually a two-tiered cage submerged in an MIT swimming pool, where students tested the mettle of the ROVs they built. The competition was supported by many organizations, including the National Science Foundation, the MTS New England section, NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration, Draper Laboratories, MIT Sea Grant, and WHOI.

The competition aims to connect students and educators with employers from marine industries, highlight marine-related career opportunities, and promote the development of technical problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork skills. The event had two competition classes with different types of vehicles and mission scenarios. In the open class, students with more experience built an ROV to recover another ROV, the 10-pound negatively buoyant RUSTI, trapped inside the mock-up of the Titanic. In the 12-25 class (named for the 12-volt, 25-amp limit of the ROV), students recovered PVC piping meant to resemble C-probes—small instruments that can collect water samples and measure and store data. ROVs in the open class needed to be small enough to maneuver within a 4-foot by 4-foot opening in the mock-up. Those competing in the 12-25 class had to be even smaller, fitting through a 2-foot by 2-foot opening.

Many of the teams in the 12-25 class had already competed in a regional competition, including one held in April at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS). Paul McGinnis, who teaches marine biology and oceanography at CRLS and was an organizer of that event, explains the mission at hand: "The teams have 20 probes to get in 20 minutes. Each probe is 1-5 points, depending on how hard they are to get to." The teams are scored for their ability to recover the probes within the given time frame and for the design and construction of the vehicle, including originality and craftsmanship. Also judged is the ability to clearly and effectively communicate how the ROV works—an essential, real-world skill.

Like their creators, the ROVs are testaments to ingenuity, collaboration and perseverance. The winning New England regional team from North Kingston High school in Rhode Island used a large screw attached to a Mercedes car seat motor to pick up probes. At the international competition, the team from East Chicago Central High School used a motor from a power drill to power its vehicle. The St. Augustine High School team from San Diego looked to Tupperware to house its controller; and the Thain sisters employed an underwater vacuum to suck up probes.

  Teammates from Lake Superior State University launch their ROV.
Most students stress that aside from learning about building ROVs, the competition—or more importantly, the preparation—provided lessonsabout teamwork, planning, and trial and error. Kurt Wiagg, from the Sound School in New Haven, CT, notes at the regional event: "I learned that ROVs need to be designed a certain way in order to carry out a specific task. One ROV cannot be the best at doing everything."

When asked the name of her team's ROV, MIT undergraduate Jessica Austin-Brennerman says, "It's like a goldfish. We want to wait and see if it lives for two weeks before we name it." Her teammate Heather Brundage adds, "It was the first time getting my hands wet. It's been fun not just to design but to do the whole thing, [including] getting in the tow tank at 1 am in cold water in waders."

Jennifer Garcia, with Stoughton High School's Women in Technology team, says, "We know what we did wrong and what to change for the next time."

And the CRLS team did just that. After placing second at the regional competition, it used the next couple months to modify its vehicle. Those improvements paid off, with the team tying for first with the home-schooled Thain sisters of White Rock South Surrey, British Columbia in the 12-25 class. Avalon East School Board from St. John's, Newfoundland placed third. In the open class, the top three places went to Lake Superior State University (Michigan), Monterey Peninsula College (California), and Galveston College/Ball High School (Texas).

But the MATE Centerís Jill Zande, coordinator of the international competition, likes to point out that all the teams are winners by virtue of having designed and created a operating ROV. "I'm always amazed at what students come up with and their ability to articulate it," she says, referring to the documentation portion of the competition. Teams are required to keep an account of their design and building process and records of expenses. They also win points for poster displays explaining their projects and work process. Participants are assisted by mentors in the marine industry, who may one day look to these young pilots, engineers, and inventors to take the lead in real-life marine missions.

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