By Mark Squibb | Vol 7 No. 10 (May 23, 2019)
From the physics lab at Mount Pearl Senior High, you may hear the sounds of soldering irons, excited chatter, and equipment being moved about.
Inside may be a group of students. Some might be at computer, working on complex computer code. Others may be busy configuring electrical wiring. Still others may be brainstorming for a presentation report.
These members of The Huskies Explorers robotics club at Mount Pearl Senior High are busy preparing for the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) international ROV contest at the Kingsport Aquatic Center in Kingsport, TN.
They competed in the regional MATE competition at the beginning of May and placed first, and are now headed off to Tennessee for June 20-22 to compete on the world stage against teams representing China, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Scotland, Turkey, America, and other countries.
This year’s theme was Innovations for Inshore: ROV Operations in Rivers, Lakes, and Dams.
Robotics teams across the world were given a ‘contract’ back in December, which outlined the several tasks they would need to perform.
“We were given the contract back in December, and so we’ve been working on it since then. Basically, going over the electronics, all the tools, deciding on which tools we would need to fulfill the tasks within the contract,” explained Cameron Kinsella, team CEO and Pilot.
“All these simulated tasks are supposed to represent as if we were working industrially,” added Megan King, Communications Lead.
The team is given 15 minutes to complete a series of tasks, which including lifting objects, moving objects, and identifying objects.
A pilot and co-pilot steer the actual ROV, which is controlled through two laptops at the surface by custom code written by the students.
Meanwhile, four members of a deck crew are responsible for the health of the robot, as well as communicating with the judges.
“Basically, all the data, all the power, all the electricity, all the pneumatics, all travel through this 50- foot long rope that we built— it’s called the tether— and that travels to the robot, where everything happens,” explained Shane Williams, Software and Electrical lead.
The electronics are housed inside a waterproof enclosure, and the ROV comes with custom software that can detect particular shapes through a camera lens.
A rotating, pneumatic (meaning, using gas or pressurized air to operate) claw functioning on a dual action piston is the robot’s main tool.
“It’s really versatile. We could use it for almost any single one of the tasks,” said Kinsella,
The claw was designed by Kinsella, who then had it 3D printed, a process whereby computer designs can be printed into three dimensional objects.
The Husky Explorer is a complex piece of technology, built with electrical, mechanical, and computer coding know-how, but there’s also the ‘paperwork’ side of the competition.
Students need to prepare an engineering presentation, marketing display, technical reports, as well as engage in community outreach on the project.
Students spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in the lab, and it’s not usual for them to work on the project over the weekend, and even over holiday weekends.
After all, June is fast approaching and there is plenty to prepare for.
“There’s a lot of learning experiences at the regional competition, because it was the first time we actually got a chance to use all of the proper props,” explained Williams.
“Some ideas that we had worked really well, and others didn’t, so we have to make modifications based on that.”
Students estimated that they have put in about 300 man hours since December.
The robotics club is offered in addition to the robotics class offered by the school, and many of the students competing in this year’s international competition say that it’s their first year as a member of the club.
They also recommend that anybody who is interested in the club to go on and give it a shot.
“It’s a lot easier than most people would think. A lot of us haven’t had experience before this year, and look what we came out with,” said Williams.
“A lot of the skills that we’re learning here are going to be easily transferable. They’re going to help us out later in life and look great on a resume.”
“I knew that I had no experience whatsoever. But I came in, it was a great group of people, and I got more comfortable with it, and now I know how this works,” added King, waving at the intimidating look ROV sitting atop a desk.
She noted that there are plenty of skills to pick up from the club, besides the obvious mechanical, engineering, and computer skills.
“Organization skills; we have to do an engineering presentation so you get those communication skills; presentation skills, we have to do a marketing display, so you get the skills of having to format that, and going through another company to get that printed; teamwork; working with other people; learning to work effectively with other people,” she said, encouraging anybody who has ever thought about joining to go give the club a try.
“Maybe if you come and don’t like it, then you know it isn’t for you. But if you come here and you really like it, and its not something you didn’t think you were going to like, then that opens up a bun ch of opportunities that you didn’t know were available to you.”
And, if there is to be team next year, the club is going to need new members; the majority of this year’s group will be graduating at the end of the year.
But robotics coach Paul King isn’t concerned about there not being enough interest for a team next year.
“I had four grade nine kids come to me this year, interested in the robotics program,” said King.
Those grade nine students built their own ROV, and competed in the regional competition, finishing fourth overall out of 21 teams at the Junior High level.
“First time ever in the water!” said King.
The school has a history of international robotics competitions and has competed on the world several times.
“It gives them a practical way to see physics in a real world application,” explained King.
“They choose the materials, they choose what type of tools, they choose the type of motors, the type of camera. So they’re invested in it. So, they don’t mind staying late,” he continued.
“It takes a lot of time, but in the end I know it’s well worth it.”
Across the road, members of the O’ Donel High robotics placed second in the regional competition, which also earned them a spot at the international competition.