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CHIPS Articles: Navigating the Waters: Today’s Autonomy, Tomorrow’s Engineers

Navigating the Waters: Today’s Autonomy, Tomorrow’s Engineers
By Sierra Jones, Office of Naval Research - July 3, 2017
ARLINGTON, Va.—Autonomy and the future force were in the spotlight, as nine student-led teams tested their maritime engineering skills during the 10th annual International RoboBoat Competition, held June 20-25 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The competition—sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation—is an annual robotics contest, where teams put their student-built autonomous surface vehicles (ASVs) through a series of advanced water-based challenges.

“These students have spent months developing, programming and tweaking their ASVs to get them water-ready,” said Kelly Cooper, a program officer in ONR’s Sea Warfare and Weapons Department, Ship Systems and Engineering Research Division—and a RoboBoat judge. “This was their opportunity to show what they’ve learned and demonstrate how their vehicle could perform in a maritime environment.”

According to the RoboBoat 2017 guidelines, that’s the ultimate goal of the competition: “for students to develop skills in systems engineering by accomplishing realistic missions with autonomous vehicles.”

“These kids are future—the future engineers that will take on the fundamental research and development of autonomous naval systems,” said Cooper. “We want them to walk away from this competition with the skills to be successful in that endeavor.”

And if recent exercises—like Unmanned Warrior and S2ME2 ANTX (Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise)—are any indication, those skills will be vital as autonomous systems play an increasingly important role in supporting missions of the Navy and Marine Corps.

“Autonomous and unmanned systems will address a wide range of naval functions in the future,” said Cooper. “It’s events like RoboBoat that offer participants an understanding of how they can contribute to the development of the autonomous technologies that will protect our warfighters from asymmetric threats.”

This year’s teams, largely composed of university students, were evaluated on their vessel design and performance. The design component focused on innovation, quality of engineering and craftsmanship. The performance component tested each vehicle’s ability to execute specific missions on the water without human interaction—including the first surface/aerial interoperability challenge using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) without human interaction.

As part of the performance challenge, the ASVs had to complete the task of passing through a set of gates. Although this sounds simple, the task demonstrated the ASVs’ complex visual sensor and guidance integration; speed; and ability to navigate a channel—and this had to be successfully completed for any mission challenge points to be awarded.

The mission tasks demonstrated the maritime systems’ autonomous behavior in different scenarios, including: speed; automated docking, which demonstrated the ability to launch and communicate with an aerial drone; finding a path in a crowded area; target identification; precise navigation; and, finally, return to dock.

Teams had four days of course practice to troubleshoot system issues before entering the qualifying sessions and final round to compete for cash prizes.

The Daytona Beach Homeschoolers was this year’s biggest winner, bringing home the top prize of $5,000. Hagerty High School from Oviedo, Florida, won second prize and $4,000; Georgia Tech took third and $3,500; the Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember from Surabaya, East Java, came in fourth, earning $3,000; and Embry Riddle

Aeronautical University rounded out the top five, taking home $2,500. Smaller awards of $500 and $1,000 in various special award categories went to Mexico’s Tecnologico de Monterrey, Hagerty High School and the University of Michigan.

The other participating institutions were Universitas Indonesia and the University of Iowa.

Sierra Jones is a contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications

The RoboBoat Georgia Tech Team at the dock, preparing their autonomous catamaran for their run in the finals of the 10th annual International RoboBoat Competition. Photo by AUVSI Foundation
The RoboBoat Georgia Tech Team at the dock, preparing their autonomous catamaran for their run in the finals of the 10th annual International RoboBoat Competition. Photo by AUVSI Foundation
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