Club Sub

April 24, 2009

A student club builds underwater robots - and the resumes of its members.

DA diver tends to Seawolf II during an international underwater vehicle competition in San Diego, Calif. NC State’s Underwater Robotics Club tests its robots against dozens of teams each summer. (Photo: courtesy of the Underwater Robotics Club) 
DA diver tends to Seawolf II during an international underwater vehicle competition in San Diego, Calif. NC State’s Underwater Robotics Club tests its robots against dozens of teams each summer. (Photo: courtesy of the Underwater Robotics Club)

Members of one NC State engineering student group spend a lot of time at the pool.

They're not working on their tans. They're testing their underwater robot.

Every summer since 2005, the NC State Underwater Robotics Club has entered a robot submarine in an international underwater vehicle competition in San Diego, Calif. The event, put on by the Association for Unmanned Systems International (AUVSI), requires each robot to navigate an underwater obstacle course that tests the robot's vision, acoustics and positioning systems.

Club members work all year to get their robot ready for the competition, but the experience stays with them past graduation. The club alumni list is peppered with students who have gone on to well-known companies and top-notch graduate programs.

Club members (from left) Jennifer Webster, Carrie Baughman, Baird Hendrix, Jason Hescheles and Brooks Stephenson take a break from building their new robot. 
Club members (from left) Jennifer Webster, Carrie Baughman, Baird Hendrix, Jason Hescheles and Brooks Stephenson take a break from building their new robot.

"The club is a great resume builder," said president Brooks Stephenson, a junior in electrical engineering. "We've had former club members go on to get great jobs at places like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman."

Still, club members have a competitive streak. Members hope to score a top-five finish at this year's competition, which pits NC State's robots against those from dozens of universities all over the world. To do that, the club is building a new vehicle that's lighter and more efficient than its predecessor, which is being retired after three years of service.

The club is primarily affiliated with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, but it also draws mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering and computer science students. Every Monday and Wednesday night, the group gets together in Burlington Labs to hash out ideas, work on design and construction and, eventually, test the robot in campus pools.

The club will soon finish work on Seawolf III. It will employ a highly efficient main computer augmented by a series of microcontrollers. (Image: courtesy of the Underwater Robotics Club) 
The club will soon finish work on Seawolf III. It will employ a highly efficient main computer augmented by a series of microcontrollers. (Image: courtesy of the Underwater Robotics Club)

"I think people are interested in joining the club because it gives real-life experience and really helps to solidify the things you may have learned in the classroom," Stephenson said. "It also gives you the chance to learn things that you may see in your classes later on, so you'll already be familiar with them."

The club began in 2004 when a small group of friends teamed up with Vortex HC, LLC, a Morrisville-based robotics company, to build a competition vehicle for the following year's AUVSI event. Their first design, called Seawolf I, suffered some electronic problems and didn't make the final round, but in practice rounds it turned heads with its acrobatic flips and barrel rolls. It was featured in the magazines Robot, Make and Servo.

The next year, the club began to work on a second vehicle that improved upon Seawolf I. The group gave Seawolf II (video) simpler controls, a triangular chassis, separate power and electronics tubes, a Windows operating system and streamlined acoustic  navigations. Seawolf II served as the competition vehicle for three years; its best showing at AUVSI was a ninth-place finish in 2006.


2006 NCSU Underwater Robotics Video

Seawolf III, which will debut this summer, is under construction now and will employ a highly efficient main computer augmented by a series of microcontrollers. This upgrade makes the new vehicle much lighter than its predecessor and addresses past issues with battery life and overheating.

The team hopes to have the new vehicle ready by the end of spring to allow time to test it before the mid-summer competition, which requires robots to navigate under, over and through obstacles and use acoustic navigation to find audio beacons in the water. Each robot has 15 minutes to finish the course and is judged on its performance.

For these students, the benefits of club membership are obvious. They make friends, build a dazzling robot and add heft to their resumes. But there's another perk.

"We also get to spend a week out in California during the summer," Stephenson said, "so that's lots of fun."

Article by NC State Engineering Magazine


NC State Engineering Magazine - View original article