Maryland today | Underwater robot competition causes a stir

Despite the distinct smell of chlorine and the marked-off lanes at Eppley Leisure Centre, the teams of students huddled along the edges of the pool are no ordinary swim meet.

Instead, a bundle of wires, propellers, and sensors glide underwater, but don’t quite reach the hovering door ahead of it or other surrounding obstacles. A diver in flippers and snorkel must catch it and hook it to a small crane to surface.

It’s all part of the 25e race RoboSuban international competition that challenges teams of students to design and build robotic submarines, also known as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), capable of performing a range of submerged tasks. Robotics @ Maryland, the University of Maryland team, is one of 39 participating groups through Tuesday. After taking place for several years in San Diego and then moving online during COVID-19, the annual event is being held at UMD for the first time.

“It was very exciting to host,” said Dillon Capalongo ’24, mechanical lead for Robotics @ Maryland. “Everyone who helped the volunteers supported us saying, ‘Go Terps! This is our school!’”

UMD has placed highly in the competition in the past, including winning it in 2008. This year marks the return of the RoboSub team since the pandemic began, and their robot, Qubotake the leap.

Qubo, which debuted in the 2017 contest, is smaller, more mobile and more modular than its predecessor, Tortuga IV, Capalongo said. Adjustments over the years have further streamlined the bot, with the team – around 30 Terps from various disciplines – developing and practicing with it in the Neutral Buoyancy Research Centerthe only tank of its type in the world on a university campus.

From left, Josh Smith, Mustafa Khan and Rainier Hood resolder a loose tether connection on their robot, Qubo, in the Neutral Buoyancy Research Center on Friday ahead of their qualifying round.

The Terps took advantage of their home court advantage, Capalongo said. Before diving into the qualifying rounds, which end on Saturday, they jumped to the tank on Friday to resolder and test a loose tether connection.

To qualify for the semi-finals, which begin on Sunday, AUVs must recognize and pass through a gate in the water. Then teams must show off their robots’ skills through a series of tasks, including recognizing images on buoys, dropping markers into bins, and firing torpedoes through a target. (This year’s contest is Roaring Twenties-themed, so bootlegger and G-man icons run rampant throughout the underwater course.)

“The bottom line is that the moment your robot surfaces, the race is over,” said Rainier Hood, electrical manager for Robotics @ Maryland. “You have to make sure you don’t dent in the middle of your run.” And human creators can’t interfere with robots once they’re in the water.

Teams – which include powerhouses like Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Alberta and the National University of Singapore – huddled around laptops, transported equipment and tested their technology at Eppley on Friday . Bringing aspiring engineers from around the world together in such competitions is “fantastic from an engineering education perspective,” said Dave Akin, Robotics @ Maryland team advisor and associate professor of aerospace engineering. The hands-on experience mimics real-world systems used for underwater exploration, seabed mapping and more.

“Think about it this way,” he tells the students. “When the time comes for you to interview for your first job, you’re not going to be stuck saying, ‘Well, I took this course and I took this course. You can say, “I built a robot and competed with it underwater.”

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