Tech Talk: Robotic Submersion (Extended Edition)

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Note from the Web Editor: A shortened version of this article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of the magazine.

Welcome to the very first segment of Tech Talk, where we will take a look at one of the many technologically inclined clubs on our campus and see what they get up to outside of class. The first club that we met with was the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Team, headed by their president, Albert Cheng, a senior in the electrical engineering technology major. Joining him in our discussion on the team was the acting Software Lead, Vinh Nguyen, who is a mechanical engineering major in his junior year. The AUV Team represented the university this summer in the 2016 International RoboSub Competition.

Henry North: Let’s start with this, what exactly does the AUV team do?

Albert Cheng: The main focus of the team is to get people interested in robotics in general and, in addition to that, to actually further students’ abilities to apply teachings learned in the classroom. Learning theory is great, but if you don’t know how to apply those theories, it doesn’t help, so the AUV team is here to be that source for applying what you’ve learned in class.

Vinh Nguyen: I can actually provide evidence that that has happened. On the second day of the competition, I was staring at all of the guys assembling the sub and then, all of a sudden, it hit me that this was what I had just learned in Circuits I, and I was watching that knowledge being applied right in front of me. It just blew my mind.

HN: Alright, this actually leads me to one of my next questions. What are some of the experiences you’ve had or skills you’ve gained from being on this team?

AC: The team has helped me with developing leadership skills. While I’ve been the president, it’s really built my self-confidence up. With being able to actually have and lead a group and organize events, I think the AUV team gave me the confidence to know I’m able to handle more leadership roles in the future.

VN: My personal experience? I joined this club in about May of 2016 and the competition was in late July, so during those three months they threw me into the software team and went through the steps to code a robot from nothing, to use a basic camera, and to be able to program the vectors that the motors used. It was a gigantic learning curve for me, especially since I do not have a background in coding.

HN: So tell me more about that competition you went to.

AC: Our competition was in San Diego, California and had somewhere from 42 to 48 teams entered. It’s an international competition that focuses on underwater robotics. The aspect of underwater robotics is more difficult compared to ground-based or air-based robotics. You’re very limited to where you can test and how you can test. Water isn’t really the greatest medium to work with when it comes to electronics, so it adds a layer of engineering that you don’t generally see elsewhere. Our sub has to be completely waterproof, not water-resistant or repellant. People think those are similar, but they are different terms. You can’t get water inside the sub or else you don’t have electrical systems anymore and you don’t have computers.

The overall competition consists of us doing different missions, and one of the primary missions that less than half of the teams normally complete is going through the start gate. You have to go through the gate and track buoys and stuff like that. The competition revolves around acquiring points and the more points you get, the higher your chances are of getting moved to the semifinals and finals. We ended up around 22nd place with the resources that we have.

HN: Looking around the workshop, I can see many banners related to different events, so is it safe to assume the team has been to previous competitions?

AC: Yeah, the current team has been to three. The first competition we didn’t actually enter, we just sent scouts to see how the competition worked. The following year is when we actually started competing, and this year is when the team really started to grow. The first year we had about 2-3 people on the team, the second year was about 7-8 and this year, we had 15 people. I’m really proud of that because as we get more interest in underwater robotics, I can see the team growing in future competitions. Hopefully, in the future, we’ll be able to do not just underwater robotics, but other robotics competitions as well.

HN: So how long has the team actually existed?

AC: The team has been around since around 1994. The previous team kind of fell apart. The former president, Bennett Stedwell, formulated and rebuilt the team and I continued building it after he left. The team kind of died off and came back, so for the past three years, we sort of restarted from scratch with no foundation. So while the origins of the AUV team are old, the current team and people on it are new, so it’s been no longer than three years since we started to compete again.

HN: I’ve been a student at this school since the fall semester of 2011, but prior to a week ago, I didn’t even know the school had an AUV team. Why do you think that is?

AC: I think it’s because our time hasn’t been spent with putting the team out there, our main concern was competition. This year, though, we’re hoping to get more recognition. The last two or three years, we didn’t really have the manpower to be able to focus on both competing and reaching out to the student body for awareness. We decided after our recent competition that we needed to contact The Sting or The Sentinel to assist with getting people to know that the AUV team exists.

VN: I actually found out about the team through word of mouth. You make some friends in your major, you hang out with them and then they pull you into it. I don’t know. It’s kind of like a good Ponzi scheme. But that simulates what happens in real life with networking; you never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to get into. I could’ve never imagined working on a sub; I could’ve never imagined coding it. I was just going about my day-to-day life and my friend said “Hey, you should check us out, come on in,” and it was that day I knew I was going to be here for a while.

HN: When I asked about previous competitions earlier, you mentioned the number of people you had on the team at different points in time. Is there a minimum or maximum limit to the number of people who can participate in the competition?

AC: No, there isn’t a fixed number that the competition limits you to or requires you to have. The team can be as big as we need it or want it. Like I said, two years ago, we took like two people, last year we took five people, this year we took nine. Hopefully, in the future as the team grows, I’m hoping we can take as many people as we can to this competition because it’s very interesting and very intriguing.

When you have nothing to focus on but a competition for a whole week, you get a lot accomplished in that small timeframe. You learn a lot and you’re able to talk to so many different teams from so many places, like Russia, China, and Singapore. You start picking their brains, like “How’d you guys tackle this?” You ask these types of questions to see if you can get some insight on why they did it this way. The competition is very academic and open; everyone is willing to help each other. If one team is struggling, another team will try to see if they need help. Everybody wants to win, but the competition is still very laidback.

HN: How many vehicles can a team enter in a competition?

VN: There’s an interesting story about that.

AC: Everybody assumed in prior years that you could only enter one vehicle in the whole entire competition. That’s not the case; in our rules, there is no limitation to how many vehicles you can enter. As long as each one can pass the primary task of passing through the gate, then that vehicle counts as a vehicle for your team. However, if any one of those vehicles float to the surface, then your run is over and your points are null. This was the first year that a team entered two vehicles, and that was Cornell University.

HN: So what are some of the real world applications of an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle?

AC: Say someone needed to do surveying or underwater research – this vehicle should be able to accomplish that. If someone wanted to count the number of fish in a pond, the vehicle should be able to track the task that you give it. Search and rescue is another option where AUVs can be applied, like with the Malaysian flight crash that happened a couple of years ago. AUVs were sent out to search for people and debris.

VN: The only thing I can think to add is that the same logic used for AUVs can be applied to drones, particularly for going into space. Elon Musk is trying to get into space to mine asteroids, without human interaction. That’s another potential application.

HN: Ok, that’s interesting. You mentioned earlier that you were hoping for the team to grow. How would one go about joining the AUV team?

AC: The team’s primary focus is to build leadership skills and to further develop engineering skills, but we aren’t just limited to engineers. We are open to all types of majors, from business, physics, nursing, mathematics, you name it. We’re open to all students who want to learn about robotics. One way of joining us is looking us up on OwlLife. If you’re interested in any organizations, OwlLife is the place to go. If you want to contact us or find out more about us, use OwlLife.

HN: Alright, bouncing off of that, do you have any extra advice for anyone interested in joining the team?

VN: Just come in and say hi. The best way to get into it is to come in and get acquainted with everybody.

AC: Don’t be afraid that if you don’t know anything you won’t be able to join one of these kinds of teams. You can come in knowing nothing. That’s how I did it three years ago when I first started. I didn’t know anything about AUVs or robotics or how electronics work in general. Yes, my classes have helped, but you have to take that first step, you can’t be afraid. You’ll learn a lot, not just logical and applicable skills, but also social skills. You’ll build a bond with your teammates.

VN: You just have to come in to be a student with the ability to learn. Know that you are going to break something, you’re going to burn something, you’re going to catch something on fire and it’s going to cost hundreds of dollars and it’s okay. Just know that you’ll learn from it.

AC: I think that’s the most valuable lesson, you can mess up, everybody here messes up. When I first started, I burned something up. But the team has stuff in place, where if that happens, they have backup plans, so don’t be afraid to just come in and be a part of the AUV team.

VN: For example, my team doesn’t let me work with electrical things anymore and I came up with a rhyme – brown equals ground. I plugged live wire into a ground wire; that just tells you how far I’ve come from knowing nothing, and that’s okay. Brown equals ground.

AC: Being a part of this team is quite amazing and I don’t think I would’ve been the person I am right now, being so confident and able to lead other people. The team has really helped me in that aspect.

ZN: Vinh, is there any way that the team has helped you grow?

VN: It got me out of my engineering lull, where I was just doing classes and going home and doing homework. It got me back into why I came to an engineering college to begin with, to actually do things, to actually build things and hopefully, blow something up.

ZN: Any final comments you would like to add?

AC: We’d like to thank Dr. Kevin McFall. He’s the advisor for the AUV team and he’s a really great professor. He’s provided a lot of help.

Otherwise, we’re hoping to do more competitions and eventually spread out to do more than just robo-subs.

ZN: Cool. Well, thank you. This was great.

AC: Thanks for meeting with us.

Want to know more about the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle team, or interested in joining them? Look them up on OwlLife or check out their Facebook page at KSU AUV Team.