Underwater Robot Competition Proved a "Rollercoaster Ride" for Duke Robotics Club

The Duke Robotics Team’s newly designed robot, ScyllaThe 10th annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle competition held in San Diego, Calif., from July 11-15 proved a "rollercoaster ride" for student members of the Duke Robotics Club. While early indications suggested that their newly designed robot, named Scylla, had a shot at landing in the top three, a series of operational failures ultimately forced the team to forfeit the competition before their second qualifying run.

"In the end, this competition served as a reminder that in life there will be triumphs and there will be disappointments and one should remember both so as to repeat the former and avoid the latter," said Gareth Guvanasen, president of the Robotics Club.

Twenty-seven teams, from Japan, Canada, India and the United States, competed in the 2007 competition, which was aimed at advancing the state-of-the-art of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) by challenging a new generation of engineers to perform realistic missions in the underwater environment and to foster ties between young engineers and the organizations developing AUV technologies, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The challenge involved several tasks: pass through an underwater gate, dock with a light beacon, follow a dashed line located on the pool bottom and drop a marker into a bin, and then detect acoustic signals in order to collect a piece of "treasure" and surface in a designated recovery zone. Completion of each task scored points to determine the winner.

Last year, the Duke team's submersible robot Charybdis suffered some close calls, but ultimately came through with a second place finish, losing only to a robot built by reigning champions from the University of Florida. The team decided to retire Charybdis after that successful run, which was the robot's third competition.

"Since the purpose of this competition is to encourage innovation and experimentation, Duke Robotics decided to build an entirely new AUV for 2007 rather than simply return with the same design year after year," the team wrote on their web site. "Scylla is loosely based on the strengths of our old vehicles, Gamera and Charybdis, while reaching new levels in craftsmanship and efficiency."

While Charybdis sported a spherical design, Scylla looks more like a torpedo. The new, more hydrodynamic design was aimed at making the robot faster, allowing more time for repeated attempts of the various tasks. Scylla is also much lighter than Charybdis and is decked with a new acoustic system able to recognize a wider range of frequencies.

During testing prior to the competition, the robot performed well, leaving the team with high hopes about their chances in San Diego. The first day of practice also looked good, with the robot successfully completing enough tasks to secure a 2nd or 3rd place position, Guvanasen said. The following day, however, a mysterious glitch interrupted communication between the computer and robot, and the root of the problem proved difficult to diagnose.

The team worked on the robot until the wee hours of the morning, but in the process — after 20 hours of tinkering — they fried the acoustics board. Despite the disappointing outcome, the students said they learned many valuable lessons that they will apply next year. The underwater robot team included Andrew Waterman (ECE/CS '08), David Klein (ME '08), Gareth Guvanasen (ECE/CS '08), Matt Johnson (ECE/CS '08), Brian Hilgeford (ME '06), Hyun-Joong Kim (BME/EE '09), and Jack Tao (BME/EE '08).