How to Organize an Underwater Robotics Club

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I know what you’re thinking. Robotics? Underwater? Don’t the circuits sort of, short circuit?  You’re not wrong, there is a lot more work involved in underwater robotics than say, a FIRST Robotics Team or LEGO League. But running a club like this taps into realms that a land-based robotics club just can’t access.

Underwater Robotics uses ROVs or Remotely Operated Vehicles which are the types of machines that are actually used for researching the deep ocean, deep-sea trenches, shipwrecks, undersea caves, doing work on oil rigs where it isn’t safe for people to go, and doing environmental cleanups. Doing work with ROVs can lead to discovering other types of underwater robotics like AUVs that are used by marine biologists to study migrating marine species or understand ocean currents. This is an exciting field and a great addition to any student’s growing resume.

Related post: Anki Cozmo vs Vector – What’s the Difference Between the Robots?

What Is an Underwater Robotics Club?

There are two main Underwater Robotics Clubs that I have participated in and run with student groups: SeaPerch and MATE. These both have their benefits and are good for different groups of people.

SeaPerch Underwater Robotics Competition

SeaPerch is best for first-timers to robotics programs in general. It is a pre-fab kit and contains everything that you need to build your underwater robot. It has a very easy to understand set of instructions plus a basic circuit board to be soldered. There is always some troubleshooting that is typically dealing with the motor going the wrong way, or the circuit board having been soldered a little too heavy-handed. However, overall, it’s a good lesson in buoyancy and hydrodynamics, but there isn’t much room for design modification or engineering design

The instructions are very clear on “This is how you build a SeaPerch”, and that makes it hard for students to break away from that to become more creative and free-thinking in other design possibilities. When you go to the competition, you will see almost all of the other ROVs looking identical, and SeaPerch gives a specific “goal” for the competition that is usually solved with things like adding a temperature sensor, adding a hook to the end, or putting an electromagnet on the hook.

If you have little to no building, circuitry, or engineering experience, this is the program for you. Further assistance is provided with a SeaPerch mentor, a Navy employee or intern who volunteers to assist your team if needed.

Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE)

Where SeaPerch gives a specific design, MATE provides almost no pre-fab design whatsoever. Competitors are expected to fully understand the goal of the competition and design and engineer their ROV to the specifications of what the objective is in the end. This means that no two ROVs are the same.

Since MATE is based out of Monterey, CA, their missions are typically environmentally based (for example, one year it was related to an oil spill that needed to be cleaned with booms). They are very clear on what motors are allowed and specific size limitations, but students are able to use a variety of materials for their ROV. Unfortunately, this means that wealthier groups spend A LOT of money on their ROVs, but fortunately, it’s not just about design. It’s just as important to know how to drive your ROV, so be sure to have your students practice with obstacles underwater.

Our students from an inner-city school didn’t have the fanciest ROV, but put in a lot of work and ended up taking 2nd place their first year!

The main difference between SeaPerch and MATE ROVs is that MATE has an additional underwater camera, has at least 4 motors (SeaPerch has 3), and has the ability for hydraulic arms and even Arduino programming of advanced robotics.  There’s just more engineering design in MATE than SeaPerch, hands down. Long story short? This one is my favorite, but I’m also a STEM fan.

A Strong Team Starts with Team Building

Before you even begin with robotics, you are going to want to have a strong team.  I always start my meetings with team building exercises. Some of these are basic, like this Snowflake Activity that teaches listening, communication, and the importance of asking questions when you don’t understand.  There are many more out there, but some of my students’ favorites are ones that I have made up or adapted over the years; my “Magical Sea Turtles” activity involves the entire team traveling from a deserted island to safety across a Kraken-infested sea using only magical sea turtles for transportation.  These types of activities create a bond between teammates that will come in handy later when it comes to cheering each other on at the competition, and supporting each other when things don’t go as planned.

Where to Start?

Underwater Robotics Club

For starters, before you even begin with the ROVs, you need to teach your team circuitry, motors, wiring, and basic construction skills. Some things that you might take for granted like how to use a drill, saw, PVC cutter, and soldering iron is necessary to break down into mini-lessons with your students.

MATE sells practice circuit boards for teaching students soldering that include the battery hookups, a switch, and LED lights. I also found it necessary to review measuring, fractions, and the concept of measure twice, cut once. My students had a tendency to cut over the line on their PVC, rather than leaving the line, so we needed practice with this. Much of their tools on the ROV will be static, but some can be moved with basic hydraulics using fish tubing filled with water and pushed with syringes, and this can be broken into a lesson as well.

Once you have an established club, have gone through the process of gaining members, earning parent support, and getting parents to sign off on any field trips, you are going to need to find out about the competition. When and where is your local competition? What are the dates you need to know about like registration dates and fees, new coach classes, or meetings?

You might also want to schedule some practice sessions in a local pool like the YMCA for the weeks leading up to the competition. One of the most important things you can do is find out about the theme of the competition. This will dictate the design of your students’ ROV.

I’m Lost, Maybe ROVs Aren’t For Me

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Many people come into this wanting to participate, but not knowing where to start or feeling like they don’t have the skills to run a program.

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The two main ROV club programs, SeaPerch and MATE, have designed training programs for new leaders:

Check out SeaPerch Training here, or go to your local chapter’s site for in-person classes before the new season.

MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) offers Professional Development, a Summer Institute each year, and regional workshops. They have an application process for their summer institute in Monterey, CA, but as a previous participant, I can attest that it is worthwhile and teaches a lot about running an underwater robotics club as well as the steps necessary to be successful.

Will coordinating an underwater robotics club be worth it?

By running a program like this, you will be a science hero. Think of all of the hands-on lessons with real-world applications in having your students build an ROV – just like the giant research vessels of MBARI, or like the ROVs used to clean up trash in the ocean by the Rozalia Project!

There is nothing more hands-on than having your students design an ROV that can clean up their local lake, or do what these students are doing by using ROVs they design and build to release juvenile salmon they raise into their local river.  Doing this kind of project caters to students who are kinesthetic learners, artistic, tactile, math-minded without needing to know high-level math, covers science concepts like buoyancy and hydrodynamics, and provides a sense of belonging with like-minded kids.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How can I find underwater robotics competitions near me?

This really depends on what type of program you are in. Check with your local organizer or the pool that hosts your local competition. These are usually held at universities, so ask around.

If the ROV is underwater, how can I see what it’s doing?

This is a common problem during competition when everyone is working on the same tasks in the pool, and the surface is rippling making it impossible to see anything.

In SeaPerch, underwater cameras are not required, and depending on the rules can sometimes be prohibited. In MATE, underwater cameras are encouraged.

These can be expensive unless you MacGuyver yourself an inexpensive system consisting of a backup camera for a car, cut the wire and add an extension the length of your ROV tether (make sure to waterproof it the connection), the camera base in slow setting epoxy to waterproof it, and use the backup camera screen to see the ROV’s progress underwater. The screen can be stored in a waterproof case for safekeeping.

How can my team win a competition?

While I can’t guarantee a win, I can give you a couple of tips that might help from my own experience:

  • Remember that it’s not about winning! Participating in a STEM program, giving students a sense of teamwork and belonging, and learning how to win and lose is sometimes more important than winning. You are teaching them responsibility and resilience.
  • Have your team come up with a team name, create posters to support each other, and if you can afford it, create team shirts. Our team couldn’t afford team shirts, so we made them ourselves. Not everyone will be able to drive the ROV in the competition, but they can all cheer on their teammates.
  • Practice! Communication is important between driver and navigator. They must practice driving to do this.
  • Put your best video gamer on driving. It is basically a video game controller. Have everyone try it out, the best driver and navigator might surprise you! Let the team nominate the roles, and have backups.
  • Make sure everyone knows where they are going on the day of, especially parents. Let them know the time and place well in advance.
  • Bring snacks. You will be there longer than you think!
  • Bring a toolbox and extra parts for troubleshooting.
  • Have fun! Remind your students that they are there to have fun together!
Mark Coster, BSc(Hons) PhD MRACI CChem