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 lifesince she was 8.
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 themwas 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.
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
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-probessmall 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 worksan essential, real-world
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.
Most students stress
that aside from learning about building ROVs, the competitionor
more importantly, the preparationprovided 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."
from Lake Superior State University launch their ROV.
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