Montana State University

MSU RoboSub team posts milestone at robotics competition

August 1, 2012 -- Sepp Jannotta - MSU News Service

MSU college of engineering students show components of their robotic submarine. Pictured from top, left: Javion Blake, Eben Howard, Emily Bishop. Bottom, left; Jesse Shirley, Sarah Mondl. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.    High-Res Available

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After investing thousands of hours into building and testing its robotic submarine and traveling 1,100 miles from Bozeman to San Diego, Calif., a breakthrough for Montana State University's team at the 2012 RoboSub competition came down to a few precious seconds.

With a clock ticking down, the MSU launched its submarine into the pool and watched it motor through a gate and reach the uncharted territory of advancing the team beyond the opening round. The 2012 RoboSub competition - which features an international field of college and high school robotics clubs - was held July 19-22.

"It seems very simple," said Eben Howard of Bozeman, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and plans to pursue a master's degree in computer science at MSU beginning this fall. "You just run it through a gate. But when you watch and see all the things that can go wrong, it's a big deal."

See a video of MSU's RoboSub team testing its submarine.

After two days of trouble shooting - fighting to get the submarine's computer to talk sense into the motor controllers, repairing a leaking cylinder with duct tape, and making peace with the fact that the sub would have to maneuver without the aid of cameras - the group was nearly out of time to make its qualifying run.

The MSU team knew a lack of working cameras would likely make it impossible for the computer to guide the submarine successfully through any other tasks on the course. Given their vehicle's limitations, the team was all right with simply passing through the qualifying gate.

"With all the stress of just getting our vehicle in the water, getting through that gate and qualifying was a big relief," said Ethan Block, a Darby native who graduated this year with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.

Simply qualifying is a victory that many teams don't pull off, Block added, as was the case for MSU during its first trip to RoboSub in 2011.

MSU's venture into underwater robotics began in 2010 as engineering students launched senior capstone projects on two fronts: One a remotely controlled tethered submarine built for use by Gallatin County Search and Rescue; the other a capstone project to build an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) for the RoboSub competition funded by $20,000 from the Naval Sea Systems Command and bolstered by the involvement of underclassmen from the RoboSub student activities club.

The annual RoboSub competition aims to advance the development of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles by challenging students and others to put their vehicles through an underwater obstacle course.

After efforts of the first RoboSub team resulted in an AUV that didn't make it out of the gate, or through it, Javion Blake said this year's design team scrapped its predecessors' model. Blake, a mechanical engineering senior from Jamaica, said the changes in their design-and-build approach included everything from materials to methodology.

With another $20,000 from the Naval Sea Systems Command, this year's RoboSub AUV project began in the fall as a senior capstone project for a seven-student team made up of mechanical engineering, mechanical engineering technology and electrical engineering majors. The capstone project was then handed off to the RoboSub club - roughly 15 students who were responsible for preparing the AUV for competition in San Diego.

The MSU submarine, nicknamed "Bob" consisted of a watertight acrylic cylinder containing the electronic brains and power supply and an aluminum external frame on which motors and cameras were attached.

The RoboSub club's computer science students programmed the sub to drive through a gate, pick up objects, and navigate without human control.

By April, the group's work received a thumbs-up from Michael Kapus, an MSU graduate and engineer with Naval Sea Systems Command, who helped secure the NSSC's funding for the student's sub.

For Kapus, it was important to help MSU develop an AUV project that offered the same kind of practical experience he got working with Bobcat Motorsports, a joint project of capstone students and student activity club members that designs and turns out a track-ready racecar.

"Doing the Bobcat Motorsports project turned my senior design project into more than just a class," Kapus said. "There's plenty of incentive to do more than just turn out a design. The competition created a reason to put more thought into our project."

RoboSub offers an additional incentive - the top teams vie for $20,000 in prizes.

The 2012 event drew more than 30 teams from 10 countries. As was the case in its first year at RoboSub, MSU did not place among the top six prize-winning teams. The top spot was captured by Cornell University.

Cornell, according to Howard, employed nearly $30,000 in commercial-aircraft-grade navigational sensors, known as inertial measurement units (IMUs). MSU by contrast had a single $90 IMU on board, Howard said.

Nevertheless, the fact that MSU failed to place did not faze any of the team members, said Block, who also participated in MSU's 2011 effort.

"I think this year was our biggest leap forward educationally, and that is what this process is really about," Block said. "On the design and building side of the project, we were proud to say that we were pretty much able to do everything in house."

David Miller, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and this year's adviser to the RoboSub capstone project, agreed.

"The idea was for the project to work like it would in the real world," Miller said. "We had a multidisciplinary team and they went through the design process and they run it like an industrial project: You have deliverables and deadlines, reporting requirements, and in the end you have a product."

The Naval Sea Systems Command plans to fund MSU's team for another year, Kapus said.

"That's key because, as we've seen, each year we learn more and the hope is to pass that knowledge along to the next team," said Emily Bishop, a Billings native and senior in the mechanical engineering major who has been a part of the RoboSub club since its inception. "And having that momentum will hopefully keep this group growing and evolving."

Contact: David Miller, assistant professor, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Deparment, at or (406) 994-6285.