ROV Competition

Usually, the competitors taking to the water at UWM’s Klotsche Center pool are college swimmers and divers.

But on one recent Sunday, they were robots.

More specifically, they were remotely operated vehicles—ROVs—built and designed by teams of high school students for the first annual Wisconsin MATE Regional ROV Competition, called “Building the Water Generation.” MATE, the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center, is a National Science Foundation-funded organization based in California that promotes marine-related education and career development. The organization coordinates an annual international ROV competition and a network of regional ROV competitions.

More than 50 students from seven high schools in Milwaukee’s seven-county region participated in the Mar. 7 event, which was sponsored by the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences’ Great Lakes WATER Institute, the UWM School of Continuing Education, the Milwaukee 7 Water Council, and Discovery World.

“The competition is a coming together of UWM, the water-sector business community, and high schools to celebrate freshwater,” said Caroline Joyce, director of water education at the School of Continuing Education and co-coordinator of the competition.

The program was developed to connect students with water-sector professionals; introduce them to freshwater career opportunities; and promote their technical, teamwork, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills.

“The ROV competition allows students to mix engineering with water and to see career opportunities that students from the Midwest normally wouldn’t see,” said Tom Consi, associate scientist at the WATER Institute and co-coordinator of the event.

Exploring an undersea volcano
ROVs have been around since at least the 1950s. Piloted from the surface via a tether, these unmanned underwater vehicles are used for scientific exploration and to inspect offshore oil platforms, lay oceanic cables, and recover the “black boxes” of downed airplanes. WATER Institute researchers routinely use them to collect samples and observe habitats in Lake Michigan.

The competition at UWM challenged students to design and build an ROV that could undertake a simulated mission to the Loihi seamount, an active undersea volcano off the coast of Hawaii. The mission tasks—performed in the UWM pool—included exploring a cave, deploying a hydrophone, collecting biological samples, measuring water temperature, and plotting data.’

“The teams were very impressive—they produced really good vehicles,” said Consi, who has been the advisor for UWM’s own undergraduate MATE ROV team since founding the group in 2005.

“What was really interesting was that all of the kids were speaking the language of science,” said Joyce. “You’d hear them talk about things like neutral buoyancy and Bernoulli’s principle.”

Along with performing the underwater mission, which was broadcast live to an audience at Discovery World, each team had to write a technical report, develop a poster display, and give an engineering presentation about their project.

Building school and business partnerships
The students began preparing for the competition last November, when the teams attended an introductory session at the WATER Institute and received a MATE kit containing parts for a simple ROV. After a session on basics like safety, wiring, and soldering, the students were off and running, working on their ROVs after school or as part of a class project under the guidance of a team coach.

Each team also was paired with a mentor from one of the region’s water-sector businesses. “Part of the students’ education was seeing what these companies do,” said Consi.
The businesses also benefit from the partnerships. “It’s very encouraging to see that there are several teams across the region, and that there is talent [the business community] can tap into,” said Dean Amhaus, executive director of the Milwaukee 7 Water Council. The Council’s mission is to develop the Milwaukee region into a world-recognized hub for freshwater research, economic development, and education.

The school and business partners were:

Dream Chasers – A.O. Smith
Inland Seas High School – the WATER Institute
Lakeview High School – the U.S. Coast Guard
Ozaukee High School – ITT Technical Institute
The Prairie School – KOT Environmental Consulting
Waterford Union High School – Brown & Caldwell
West Bend High School – Astronautics
A U.S. Department of Labor Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) grant provided funding for the competition.

Ozaukee heads to international competition
Back at the UWM pool, Ozaukee High School was declared the regional competition’s winner. With financial support from individual and business donors, the team now moves on to MATE’s International ROV Competition, held June 24-26 at the University of Hawaii–Hilo.

MATE representatives were impressed with how the Wisconsin regional competition turned out, said Consi. An essential ingredient in the program’s success, he added, was the involvement of past and present members of the UWM undergraduate ROV team. Many of them have been to MATE’s international competition in the past, and easily slipped into roles as judges, mentors, and prop builders for the regional competition, he said.

As the Ozaukee High School team prepares for the international competition, UWM and the other regional competition sponsors are looking ahead with hopes of building on the success of this year’s event. “The idea is to develop this ROV competition further, to get more teams and grow,” said Consi.