Underwater Robotics Team Prepping for Simulated Extraterrestrial Mission

Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Underwater Robotics Article

Launch ready: Betsy Tainer and Joe Schornak release the Underwater Robotics team's remotely operated vehicle (ROV) for a test run in the Student Recreation Center. The robot must operate at depths of up to 40 feet at an international competition this summer in Texas.

Rose-Hulman students are preparing for a mission to Jupiter's moon, Europa.

Hypothetically, anyway.

The Underwater Robotics Team has qualified for the annual Marine Advanced Technology Educators (MATE) Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) international finals June 23-25 at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

As part of the competition, the team must carry out a simulated mission on Europa, testing the thickness of ice covering a lunar ocean, and measuring the depth of the water underneath. They'll also simulate search, retrieve, and repair missions deep under Earth's oceans.

For the second year in a row, the team advanced through a Chicago regional to earn a spot at the global finals. Last year, they placed seventh out of more than two dozen teams at the finals in Canada. Looking ahead to this summer, they have high hopes based on some big design improvements.

"The robot's electronics are cleaned up and better organized," says Betsy Tainer, a sophomore mechanical engineering major. At the international competition, the robot must operate at depths of up to 40 feet, but is capable of going much deeper, says Joe Schornak, a mechanical engineering senior and president of the Rose-Hulman Robotics Club.

Another improvement is with the robot's "eyes." Instead of multiple fixed cameras, this year, the robot has a single camera that moves up and down and side to side with the movement of the robot driver's head. Wearing virtual reality-type goggles, the operator has the feeling of being underwater with the ROV.

"It gives you fantastic situational awareness," Schornak says. "It's not something that's been done before. We're actually pushing the envelope here."

The international MATE ROV competition challenges students to apply the science, technology, engineering, and math skills they learn in school to marine workplace situations. It also requires students to present their teams as "companies" trying to sell a sophisticated service. They must prepare technical reports, poster displays, and engineering presentations for industry professionals who act as competition judges.