Montana State University Team Participates in 2013 RoboSub Competition

Members of the Montana State University team at the 2013 RoboSub competition watched their autonomous submarine robot glide through the first gate of their semifinal run and head straight for a submerged buoy the subs must tag before proceeding.

“Then it just stopped right in front of the buoy,” said Kevin Bangen, who graduated from MSU this summer with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. “We all stood anxiously watching and waiting for a few minutes, wondering if it was going to move forward those last 12 to 18 inches.”

In spite of the whole team and crowd peering into the water, willing the submarine forward those last inches, it didn’t budge. Bangen said it was a strange result because the autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, should never remain static.

“After a waiting a couple of minutes we reluctantly called for the divers to pull it out of the water,” he said.

The glitch ended their hopes of being the first MSU team to make the RoboSub finals.

Bangen speculated that the sub’s computer didn’t seem to be communicating properly with the cameras and sensors that help the unit make navigational adjustments. That was compounded by cloudy weather and murky water, which limited the ability of the autonomous vehicle’s cameras to aid navigation. As usual, the teams with the most sensitive (and expensive) cameras fared the best.

The 2013 RoboSub competition, which was held July 22-28 in San Diego, was again won by Cornell University, with University of Florida taking the runner-up spot. An international field of more than 30 teams competed for close to $20,000 in prizes.

The annual event, which is sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the U.S. Office of Naval Research, aims to advance the development of AUVs by challenging students and others to put their vehicles through an underwater obstacle course. After a couple of days practicing and calibrating their subs to the course, teams attempt a series of qualifying runs, followed by a semifinal and the final, which took place on Sunday.

For a second-straight year, MSU qualified for the semifinal round, though this was the first time that the team qualified without needing to take advantage of a wildcard spot available to teams unable to qualify earlier in the week.

With students coming from the electrical and mechanical engineering disciplines, the 2013 MSU team was comprised of Bangen, Graeme Macpherson, Marc Johnson, Minh Nguyen, Morgan Thomas, Adam Fukushima and Steven Shepard, all members of the graduating class of 2013.

Team members noted that Michael Kapus, an MSU graduate and engineer with Naval Sea Systems Command, has helped secure NavSea sponsorship since MSU first began competing in RoboSub in 2011. Kapus also checked in periodically to see how the design was coming.

The RoboSub AUV project begins in the fall as a senior capstone project for a team made up of mechanical engineering, mechanical engineering technology and electrical engineering majors. An extracurricular RoboSub club, which can have non-seniors and additional disciplines represented, also contributes to the countless hours needed to build the submarine and its electrical and computer systems prior to the competition.

Since all of this year’s RoboSub team members have graduated, Bangen said he would offer one piece of advice to those who come next: The seniors on the project next year should make a major goal of cultivating underclassmen in the extracurricular club.

“I think that’s really important because the younger students will be able to learn some things they can use for the next year and so on,” Bangen said. “Otherwise, you have a team coming in that starts all over again.”

Nonetheless, Bangen said they would leave detailed notes and suggestions for next year’s RoboSub team.

Bangen said the team was proud of the new componentry and professional-looking hull design they had given the vehicle. The new componentry includes a carbon dioxide-based pneumatics system capable of releasing objects and firing torpedoes, in addition to cameras that demonstrated the ability to track targeted objects.

David Miller, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and an adviser to the RoboSub capstone project, agreed.

“This year’s group of students made significant improvements to the long-term viability of the sub, adding in multiple electronic, pneumatic and sensing devices and solidifying the integrity of the hull and structure,” Miller said. “This year’s team has left MSU with a working, stable and, most importantly, easy-to-use platform for future classes of MSU engineers.”

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