By: Edward Lundquist

Top, middle and high-school student robotics teams took part in the first National SeaPerch Challenge, held on 24 May at Drexel University in Philadelphia. SeaPerch is an innovative underwater robotics program, sponsored by the US Office of Naval Research and managed by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.

Bloomington High School South's team Kvalinator, from Bloomington, Indiana took the top prize in the high-school category followed by the Thunder Chickens from Southern Indiana Career & Tech in Evansville. The Upper Darby High School Robotics and Engineering team from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania was third. The CPUs from Piccowaxen Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland was the top middle-school team.

The SeaPerch program trains teachers and provides a curriculum to instruct students on how to build an underwater remotely-operated vehicle in an in-school or out-of-school setting. Students build their own ROV from a kit comprised of low-cost, easily accessible parts, following a curriculum that teaches basic engineering and science terminology and principles with an ocean and marine engineering theme. "The SeaPerch program embraces the wonders of underwater robotics to introduce young people to the principles of science, technology, engineering and math," Susan Giver Nelson, executive director of the SeaPerch Program, says.

AUVSI SeaPerch competition
Top, middle and high-school student robotics teams took part in the first National SeaPerch Challenge, held on 24 May at Drexel University in Philadelphia

Part of the ONR National Naval Responsibility Initiative, SeaPerch is aimed at "Recruiting the next generation of naval architects."

The program engages students in building, testing, operating and solving problems with their SeaPerch underwater robots.

The students learn how to build a propulsion system, how to develop a controller and how to investigate weight and buoyancy.

SeaPerch is a key element in the Navy's STEM efforts, which focus on bringing academia, government and industry to work together to ensure the talent needed to design the navy's next generation of ships and submarines will be there in the future.


"I have committed to doubling the Navy's investment in STEM education over the next five years," Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, said in his keynote speech at the Naval STEM Forum held on 15-16 June in Alexandria, Virginia. "We are going to double it in a targeted and innovative way so that we reach the maximum number of people and have the maximum impact." During his remarks, Mabus announced the navy's new STEM roadmap, designed to renew efforts to deliver educational opportunities for young people and encourage them to seek a future as naval scientists and engineers.

"The extent to which our initiatives raise greater interest in STEM among eighth graders, or increase the number of Americans pursuing - and, I would also say, completing - undergraduate STEM degrees, will determine whether we put ourselves on the sustainable path we, in the Navy, will need," Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead said at the STEM Forum.


Roughead said that because of current trends, he saw a promise to impact the navy's pool of professional scientists and engineers to develop the future force, "as well as the sailors of the future who we expect to operate increasingly complex systems in an information-age navy".

"It is not just a question of funding, but also of making the funds effective with comprehensive, mutually supportive and co-ordinated initiatives," Roughead added.

"The Navy's commitment to smart approaches in STEM education and outreach will determine how well we bring in the people we need to replace the 30% of defense science and technology professionals expected to retire by 2020, or the roughly 6,000 engineers and naval architects affiliated with our Naval Sea Systems Command alone who will be eligible to retire in just three years' time."

AUVSI SeaPerch competition

At the National Challenge, students took part in two days of events, including team presentations, a vehicle underwater obstacle course and a simulated sea-floor oil spill that required teams to cut the flow, cap a well and conduct recovery operations.

Phil Kimball, former executive director of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers and now SeaPerch's program director, helped organize the competition. "The program has come a long way and because of the program's expansion to 38 states, it was time to have this national championship."

The challenge required teams to use their SeaPerch to navigate an obstacle course, cap a well and recover the spilled oil - in the guise of plastic golf balls. They also had to prepare a poster presentation about their ROV design and solution. "The middle-school students are judged by their posters alone, but the high-school students must make an oral presentation before a panel of judges who also may ask questions," Kimball says.

"One of the most important things the students learn through this process is that failure is an option. They learn that part of engineering is problem-solving, and they had to do so on the deck of the pool," Nelson says. "In fact, some of the SeaPerches were damaged in transit, and repairs had to be made just prior to the event. What a great opportunity for the students to learn a valuable lesson in engineering."

"This is just the beginning," Kimball adds. "This is a chance for students to meet other students from across the country. They learn from each other. They talk to the other teams and observe how others have solved similar problems or how they've modified their robots."

"This event was the realization of a dream - four years of building programs one by one until we had a critical mass of enough programs to host a national challenge, and it exceeded our expectations," said Nelson.

"I can see that the students, teachers and parents are already gearing up for next year," Kimball says.

"They've learned from their experience and want to come back and do better next time."

The 2012 SeaPerch National Challenge will be hosted by the Prince William Public Schools at George Mason University in Northern Virginia.


In the world of student robotic activities, the AUVSI Foundation's popular student competitions and SeaPerch may seem like opposite ends of the spectrum - and they are to a degree - but together they represent the ideal continuum that is becoming the model for attracting and retaining students for a life in robotics.

The foundation's RoboSub competition and SeaPerch share a common "parent" in that both activities were originated with funding from the US Office of Naval Research.

Collectively the two events represent the starting point - SeaPerch - and the culmination - RoboSub - of what would be an academic career in underwater robotics. This academic career is what ONR Program Manager Kelly Cooper calls "The Yellow Brick Road".

"SeaPerch is designed as the starting point for young students to learn the basics of building their own underwater robot," Cooper explains.

"It's a hands-on, teamwork project that teaches the fundamentals of building a robotic submarine. As they progress into more advanced challenges, they ultimately end up in our RoboSub competition, where they not only build a much more sophisticated vehicle but they have to incorporate programming and autonomous operation into their sub."

This joining of K-12 programs and the well-known autonomous competitions that target collegiate teams is representative of the broader strategy of the AUVSI Foundation. Until 2009, the foundation was primarily involved in college-focused events but, realizing the need to attract students at the earliest ages to robotics, the integration of K-12 programs was a necessary step.

Activities such as RoboTour, a student walk through at AUVSI's Unmanned Systems North America conferences, are a step in the right direction, but more work is needed to build the right relationships.

Perhaps the biggest splash the AUVSI Foundation has made with SeaPerch came in the summer of 2010 when the foundation organized and ran a SeaPerch demonstration during the Boy Scouts of America Centennial Jamboree. With 40,000 Scouts in attendance from around the world, the foundation joined forces with the Boy Scouts to use SeaPerch as an introduction to the recently released Robotics Merit Badge. Foundation personnel and volunteers spent 10 days driving SeaPerches around the scuba pools as scouts were introduced to diving. The boys were able to watch, drive and learn about SeaPerch and the foundation.

While SeaPerch and RoboSub fulfill the continuum in the underwater robotics domain, the foundation is working with other programs to create a similar path in the air, land and maritime surface domains. In 2011, SeaPerch demonstrations were included at the foundation's RoboBoat and RoboSub competitions.

These demonstrations have not only engaged the youngest visitors to these competitions but they have also been used to entice our competition teams to begin educational outreach efforts in their respective communities using programs such as SeaPerch as the platform.

This is yet another example of building "The Yellow Brick Road" and incorporating current college students as mentors and inspiration for younger students.

Edward Lundquist is a retired US Navy captain and a principal science writer for MCR Federal LLC in Arlington, Virginia.

Source: Flight Daily News