Obstacle avoidance. Automated docking. Speed gates. Acoustic beacon positioning. Underwater light identification. These are just some of the missions teams had to successfully complete to win at the 7th annual International RoboBoat Competition, held this month at the Founders Inn and Spa in Virginia Beach, Va.
The competition—sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation (AUVSIF)—is an autonomous robotics challenge where teams race their student-designed and custom-built autonomous surface vehicles through buoy-marked navigation channels for a series of challenges.
“This event is ideal preparation for engineering students entering the workforce,” said Daryl Davidson, executive director for AUVSIF. “What we do is create a real-world environment where students have to build a boat that has all the features that are needed to do things that the commercial world wants to see happen.”
But before the boats can actually hit the water, teams must build a website and present a research paper to a panel of judges made up of unmanned system industry leaders.
“It gives students an opportunity to demonstrate all they learned,” said Kelly Cooper, a program officer in ONR’s Sea Platforms and Weapons Division. “Their in-water performance is really important, but here, in front of the judges, it’s important for them to demonstrate the academic aspects of autonomy.”
Thirteen teams, from as far away as Indonesia, participated in this year’s event and had four days of course practice to troubleshoot system issues before entering into the qualifying sessions and the final round to compete for a portion of $20,000 in cash prizes.
Cash prizes are funded by the AUVSI Foundation and go directly to the school, usually to a robotics club or program.
The competition has drawn increasing attention in recent years, particularly as nearly half the nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce will be retirement-eligible by the year 2020. In his Sailing Directions, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has emphasized the importance of autonomy.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was this year’s biggest winner, bringing home the top prize of $6,000. The University of Florida (UF) won second place and $5,000; the University of Central Florida (UCF) took third and $3,000; and Georgia Tech came in fourth, earning $2,500. Smaller awards of $500 and $1,000 in various special award categories went to UCF, Georgia Tech, UF and Cedarville University.
The other participating institutions were Diponegoro University, Florida Atlantic University, National Cheng Kung University, Old Dominion University, University of Texas at Arlington, University of Michigan, University of Rhode Island and Villanova University.
Since its inaugural demonstration in 2007, nearly 90 teams have participated in RoboBoat.