UTD students place 2nd in Robotic submarine competition

Published 11 August 2008

Students’ 11th-hour changes help propel team to top Ranks in underwater challenge

Students from the University of Texas at Dallas surged from their 14th-seed position in this year’s 11th annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition not only to take second place but very nearly capture first, coming in well ahead of teams from powerhouse engineering schools such as Georgia Tech, USC, and Cornell. “I think it’s safe to say that UT Dallas has arrived as a team that will be a serious contender for top honors from here forward,” said Dr. Ed Esposito, an assistant dean in UT Dallas’ Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, and the team’s faculty sponsor.

UT Dallas’ dark-horse team finished so close behind the winners from the University of Maryland in this year’s 11th annual competition that the judges awarded the team a $1,000 bonus on top of the second-place award of $4,000. The UT Dallas team’s secret weapon was their sonar system, which is the most important component for enabling the small submarines to perform point-garnering tasks in the course set out for them in a 6-million-gallon pool at San Diego’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center. “The team’s plan going into the competition was to make sure the sonar worked at all costs,” said Chris Thomas, the team’s faculty mentor and a senior systems engineer at Raytheon. “We traveled to San Diego with a sonar that had been tested for over a month, during which the team identified and corrected problems. A lot of hard work and long nights went into that.”

After arriving in San Diego, though, and seeing just how well the sonar system worked during trial runs, the team’s ambitions grew: They decided to add a vision system, enabling their sub to rack up additional points and have a chance at winning the competition. They had brought the components for a vision system with them, but they had not had a chance to incorporate and test them. What followed were several 18- to 20-hour days implementing the system, including writing all the computer code necessary for it to function as part of the sub. “The night before the final competition we were in the hotel pool at 2 a.m. negotiating with the hotel security guard for more time to continue testing,” Thomas said.

Everyone was painfully aware that adding a major component to an already-complex system risks bringing everything to a crash. But their daring paid off. The vision system enabled the team’s sub to complete an additional task — docking with a submerged buoy — which likely secured the second-place finish and nearly enabled them to win it all. There was only one downside to the whole affair: Any thoughts of playing tourist during their stay had to be exchanged for long hours of work and no more than five hours’ sleep a night. “I’m extremely proud of all the team members and impressed by their hard work and their impressive application of technical knowledge,” Thomas concluded. Dr. Esposito agreed, but he also noted Thomas’s contributions. “His efforts were instrumental in creating a cohesive, disciplined and highly skilled team, and those qualities shone through in San Diego when the pressure was on,” he said.

The autonomous underwater vehicle competition is organized each year by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit organization devoted to fostering, developing and promoting unmanned systems and related technologies. The competition is co-sponsored and officiated by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Members of this year’s UT Dallas student team were Mark Carlin, Michael Plante, Rocky Gentry, Sang-Jo Choi, Kevin Weekly and Min Chan Joo.

About the Jonsson School
With more than 2,600 students, nearly 100 faculty, and omore than $27 million in research funding, the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science awards degrees in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, software engineering, and telecommunications engineering. Areas of research include analog and mixed-signal circuits and systems; bioengineering; human communication technology; information assurance and cybersecurity; materials characterization; micro- and nanomanipulation; nanoelectronics; organic electronics; physical, chemical and biosensors; RF/microwave technology; and wireless communications engineering. Details at fearlessengineering.com.