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Below and beyond
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Students show off underwater crafts at S.D. competition


August 8, 2005

Underwater robots sputtered and stalled in murky water, but the 21 teams in yesterday's Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition advanced by leagues.

DAVID BROOKS / Union-Tribune
Charmy Chhichhia, a first-year master's student at the University of Southern California, made last-minute adjustments to her team's underwater vehicle yesterday.
"It is truly the cream of the crop competing here, and even if a small number of these people go into the field then we're increasing the quality of the equipment," said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Virginia-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

"The competition gets smarter every year."

The annual competition, held at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in Point Loma, is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Organizers hope to inspire students to pursue careers developing unmanned vehicles.

College teams from throughout the United States and Canada competed, as well as one from India that plans to eventually focus on tsunami monitoring. The only high school team was from from Amador Valley High School in Alameda County.

Although $20,000 was at stake, bragging rights were even more valuable to the college and high school students competing to be the best underwater robot student team in the world.

DAVID BROOKS / Union-Tribune
USC's underwater craft made it through the gate, but then it lost a ballast and surfaced, ending its run at the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition.
Organizers said the student's submarines were one step beyond the unmanned vehicle that rescued seven Russian sailors yesterday.

In the Bering Sea, an unmanned rescue vehicle cut away at undersea material that had ensnared a mini-submarine. At the competition, teams tried to make their submerged unmanned vehicles operate on their own, without human-operated remote controls guiding them.

"It's the next generation," said Steve Koepenick, a business development director at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center.

Unmanned submarines have been used to sweep for mines in Iraq and monitor oil pipelines. The goal of unmanned vehicles is to save time, money and human lives by getting machines to take the role of humans.

"Part of the effort is to get the mammal out of the loop, away from anything dull and dangerous," Koepenick said.

The students did their best to advance the cause. The path, though, was fraught with underwater peril.

DAVID BROOKS / Union-Tribune
USC team members (clockwise from top left) Nick Kiswanto, Harold Lim, Hannung Lin and Yit-Phang Khoo tried to establish a connection with their vehicle. Many crafts stalled, and some couldn't even get started, but participants still made progress in yesterday's competition in Point Loma.
"It's a beauty," said University of Southern California robotics team adviser Laurent Itti, as the university's swift Beo Sub II took off.

The robot had been programmed to begin its operation when it saw a bumper sticker that read: "My Other Vehicle is Unmanned."

Then it passed through a gate effortlessly. Then it stalled.

Still, cheers erupted. No one expected more from the sub because a cable had failed the day before and there wasn't time to integrate new software.

Team member Hannung Lin put her hand over her heart at the thought of the cable problem, which she referred to as "the tragedy."

Each team had 15 minutes for its custom-built unmanned robotic sub to complete three tasks.

After getting through a gate, the first task was to locate a floating strobe 10 feet under murky water. In the second, subs followed a jagged line of orange pipes 16 feet and dropped markers into gaps between the pipes. And finally, the subs followed a sonar beep, then ascended through a circle directly above the sonar.

Few could complete all three tasks. Some didn't make it through the gate.

Even the team the competitors feared most – The Orca Project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – had issues. At one point, the sub followed a reflection of the sun off its own body rather than diving for the beacon.

Still, MIT placed third.

The University of Florida was the surprise first-place winner after seven tries. Following closely in second place was Canada's Ecole de Technologie Superieure. Duke University took fourth place.

Elena Gaona: (760) 737-7575;

University of Phoenix

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