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RoboSub Competition Winners: Full Speed Ahead

Office of Naval Research program encourages STEM students to build underwater autonomous vehicles.

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While the White House may be placing new emphasis on promoting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, the Office of Naval Research is showing how it has been appealing to STEM students for years with its latest International RoboSub competition.

The week-long competition, to see who can build underwater unmanned vehicles and complete a series of tasks, is open only to students -- any students, from kindergarten right through graduate school -- from all over the world.

This year's contest, "License to Dive," was held at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) Systems Center Pacific's Transducer Evaluation Center in San Diego. Thirty-two teams from around the world competed.

[ Would mandatory computer science education help address the technology labor shortage? Read Should All High School Students Learn Programming? ]

"This got started 16 years ago when ONR and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International [AUVSI] were looking at extending the interests of students," said Dan Deitz, ONR's program officer for the RoboSub competition, "and to interest them in possible careers along the way."

Each year the contest establishes rules for the underwater devices, setting limits on size and weight, with extra points awarded the lighter the vehicle is, according to Deitz. Because it has been running for so long, he said, there have been striking changes in the sophistication and capabilities of the machines.

Using off-the-shelf technologies, such as cell phones and webcams, the students write the software algorithms that will direct the robotic subs through an obstacle course involving several challenges. The obstacles may be navigational, such as following a marked path through the water, or physical. This year, for instance, the devices have to pick up objects shaped like pizza boxes from the bottom and carry and deposit them into a basket on the surface.

This year's course also requires visualization, involving a "traffic light" flashing through three colors. Contestants had to touch their vehicles to the correct light to pass through.

The contest also may combine other skills and technical capabilities, such as shooting foam "torpedoes" through a slotted board in order to lift a tollgate.

The RoboSub competition may look like merely a fun exercise for the technically inclined. But it also serves to support the Navy's broader STEM education initiatives, according to Deitz. It's quite usual to have students competing for two, three, even six years in a row, he said, adding that many students who participated have gone on to careers with the Navy, other agencies, and companies in the field. "Perhaps 50% somehow get into this world."

This year's winners were announced July 28.

A team from Cornell University took first place and the $8,000 prize; the University of Florida team took second, winning $4,000; and the team from Far Eastern Federal University, from Vladivostok, Russia, took third place, winning $3,000. Teams from the University of Maryland (4th place) and Harbin Engineering University, Harbin, China (5th place) each won $1,000. Amador Valley High School, of Pleasanton, Calif., finished highest of the non-university teams, in 6th place.

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