Students compete with underwater robots they build themselves

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Research Associate Blake Landry, demonstrates a remotely operated underwater vehicle to a crowd at the University of Illinois hydrolab. Photo: Blake Landry

What’s the best way to teach youths about science, technology, engineering and math concepts?

By building a robot, of course.

The Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant offers grade 6-12 teachers a chance to win a free kit to build a remotely operated underwater vehicle.  The SeaPerch kit normally costs $194.

SeaPerch, a program started about five years ago by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, provides remotely operated underwater vehicles and lesson plans to teachers to improve the curriculum in science, mathematics and engineering in primary education across the country.

There is a national competition May 18 in Indianapolis.

Building a machine for the future

Constructed with hollow PVC pipes, a control box, thrusters, two floats and a motor, the robot is no longer than 15 inches and capable of deftly swimming in small lakes and ponds.

Unlike radio transmissions used to operate drones, the operator is tethered to the robot with a cable for communication.

A control box is connected to three thrusters with an Ethernet cable.  One thruster directs the robot up or down and two controls operate left and right movements.

Building an underwater vehicle involves engineering, cutting and soldering. These robots can be built to complete tasks such as taking samples from the environment, cleaning a lake or collecting data, said Blake Landry, a postdoctoral research associate at University of Illinois – Urbana and SeaPerch coordinator.

Though building a remotely operated underwater vehicle requires time and skill, it is only half the battle.  Teams must apply their new robot to problem-solving situations that could be encountered beyond just a swimming pool.

Teachers who take the robot to a pond or lake are encouraged to add extensions such as a camera, thermometer or water quality detector.  They can attach a net to the robot to collect trash that would not be reachable otherwise.

Scientific tools for the environment

“These robots are going to be used as a scientific tool, they’re just the basis for engineering tools,” Landry said.  “These robots are there so they can be used to educate, and to get students thinking about these [engineering] projects.”

Aside from education and garbage removal, remotely operated underwater vehicles have been used for special unique purposes. The Marine Advanced Technology Education sanctuary in Alpena, Mich. uses underwater robots to protect relics in the Great Lakes, said Stephanie Gondola, the sanctuary’s media coordinator.

“At the sanctuary, we’re here to protect shipwrecks,” Gondola said.  “In Lake Huron, we use them to protect and preserve shipwrecks.  They go where humans can’t go, whether it’s too hot, cold or dangerous.”

The Marine Advanced Technology Education Michigan recently hosted a Great Lakes Regional remotely operated underwater vehicle competition in Alpena, Mich.  Similar to the SeaPerch competition, teams from elementary school to high school must construct a remotely operated vehicle and complete the missions assigned.


Remotely operated vehicles are placed in the University of Illinois – Urbana HydroLab. Photo: Blake Landry

SeaPerch’s regional competitions and a national competition, offers trophies in elementary, middle and high school categories.  The competition involves constructing a remotely operated vehicle in one of two competitions: a stock class competition with a $20 maximum budget to modify the SeaPerch vehicle and an open class competition without a maximum budget.

The vehicles are tested in a swimming pool with an obstacle course.  They are required to retrieve sunken objects at the bottom of the pool. 

After the construction and test of the vehicle, each team gives a presentation before judges.  Nearly 100 volunteer judges will be present at the national competition in Indianapolis on May 18.

Holding a national competition isn’t the only way SeaPerch has connected with teachers.  On Jan. 26, SeaPerch provided a free orientation workshop for teachers at the hydro systems laboratory at the University of Illinois – Urbana.  Teachers had an opportunity to speak with graduate students about integrating the robots into their curriculum, and students were able to ask questions of professors and graduate students at the hydro systems lab.

In the past five years, more than 50,000 students have been involved in the SeaPerch program.


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