In the future, if we end up fighting a war against autonomous humanoid robots (sort of like the Terminator movies), then we might blame students from Georgia Tech Savannah for their role in making such things possible.
“The vehicle we’ve developed has all the hardware it needs to be an autonomous underwater vehicle in the future,” says Spencer Burch, the lead designer for the robotics team. “It’s just a matter of the programming for it.”
Over the weekend, the GT–SAV robotics team was in Hawaii competing at MATE, an international competition for underwater robotic vehicle design.
The students competed against some of the world’s most prestigious engineering institutions in a multi–day event that pitted robot against robot in a series of challenges like maneuverability and data collection.
The MATE competition is annual, but each year has a mission theme, which means robots must be developed that can achieve very specific goals. This year’s theme was “Underwater Volcanoes” and so the vehicles had to be equipped to maneuver, gather data and collect samples.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if next year’s competition was about an oil spill,” says Burch.
This is the second year the GT–SAV team competed in the competition, and being able to build on their experience – as well as having won an award for design excellence during last year’s event – bolstered their confidence coming into this year’s competition.
“Going in, you think, we’re horrible, we can’t do anything right. Then you get there and you realize everybody is in the same boat,” says Steven Bradshaw, the team’s pilot.
The difference between success and failure often comes down to preparation.
“What it boils down to is how much time you spent designing and anticipating the flaws that are going to come up no matter what, and then practice as much as you can before you get there,” says Bradshaw.
The group, which consists of more than a dozen students representing different disciplines working together, spent the last nine months designing and building, moving from the theoretical in the Fall to the physical development this Spring.
Having to combine the expertise of several disciplines into one project, the team members occasionally disagree when important decisions are being made, but in the world of robotics reason trumps emotion.
“We might get animated, but we never let it linger,” Bradshaw says. “We’re pretty rational people, being engineers, so there’s never any animosity left over.”
Being a strong team is a necessity for success at this competition. Not only must they work long hours together, but they also have to do things like fundraise to cover travel expenses.
Winning doesn’t mean bringing home big cash prizes, but the participants get a lot more than bragging rights.
“It let’s us know that all our hard work is on the right track,” says Bradshaw. “We’re not just competing with different disciplines, we’re competing with colleges and universities from around the world.”
Successful teams are often singled out by corporations and institutions who help sponsor the event and recruited for future endeavors.
Being part of the robotics team also means gaining a lot experience outside the classroom.
“Most undergrad students get to go to classes and graduate and that’s it,” says Lisa Hicks, the team’s lead electrical engineer. “This is a way to get that kind of experience and basically apply what I’m learning in school right now.”
Although designing and building a robot requires long days and nights of work and practice, the team still found some time to hang out by the pool.
Once they were ready to begin practice maneuvering, they took the robot to the pool at Hicks’ apartment in Pooler, where Bradshaw was able to learn the intricacies of piloting the vehicle, whose steering system uses a modified X–Box controller.
“We can have a robot that works beautifully, but if the pilot doesn’t know what he’s doing, then it’s not going to work,” Bradshaw explains.
While their creation is still more TI–82 than T–1000, the project is definitely pushing reality ever closer to science fiction. Their robot has the power to function autonomously, it just needs more detailed programming.
“This year we designed with a bigger purpose in mind, hopefully that we’ll have a platform that we can use in the future for real research applications, not just competitions,” says Bradshaw.
We had hoped to report on the results of the competition, but due to an unfortunate error in the score tabulation system, which was apparently not as well designed as some of the robots, results had still not been announced by our deadline.
Update: The scores are in and Georgia Tech placed 15th behind some tough competition. However, the students did place ahead of the M.I.T. team, which is definitely impressive.