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Designed to Inspire, Underwater Robot Heads to International Contest

June 18, 2018

Prem Patel acknowledges it was a modest ambition. He simply wanted to reboot the Drexel Robotics Club, which was in danger of disappearing altogether. Maybe, Patel thought around about a year ago, he could inspire a group of friends from the College of Engineering and elsewhere to join a club that had languished for years with little output.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the reboot: the Drexel Robotics Club triumphed magnificently.

Members of the Drexel Robotics ClubWith an underwater vehicle dubbed “ADAM,” the Club has earned a spot representing the United States at the 2018 MATE International ROV competition in Washington state this week. Drexel team members, now numbering 15, won six awards at the regional competition, including best overall entry.

From June 21st to the 23rd, they will face 30 of the world’s premiere collegiate underwater robotics teams in a competition that draws entries from California to Texas to PA, and Turkey, Egypt, Russia and India, among many others.

“It’s a big initiative to generate the next generation of underwater robotics technology. These Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) survey shipwrecks or airplane wrecks or underwater phenomenon,” said Patel, a pre-junior BS/MS mechanical and chemical engineering major. “They used these ROVs trying to find the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 crash site. For the Titanic, an ROV was sent down to survey the wreckage. We’re building the same things but with new-generation technology.”

With ADAM ROV, or Aquatic Diagnostic Acquisition Measurement ROV, the Drexel Robotics Club won six awards at a regional competition held this spring at Villanova. They took first place Overall; first in Robot Performance; first in Sales Presentation; third place in Technical Documentation, in which details of the robot design were presented; third place in Marketing Display; and the Safety Consciousness Award.

More than Just Design

Sponsored by the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center in Monterey, CA, the MATE competition promotes more than robotics design. Competitors are required to treat their teams as companies that manufacture, market, and sell their “products,” so sales pitches, posters, and presentations are embedded in contest specifications.

During the Club’s sales presentation, for instance, team members were questioned for an impressive 40 minutes by one of the sitting judges. Normally, teams are questioned for 15 minutes. Patel said ADAM’s gyroscope seemed to be of special interest to the panel of industry experts called upon to judge entries.

The MATE competition network, with 31 branches around the world, began in 2001. 

Underwater robotAt regionals, ADAM was tasked with completing within 15 minutes three operations that might be required of any aquatic ROV: survey a simulated aircraft wreckage site, identifying the flight number on the plane tail; deploy a simulated ocean bottom seismometer with a release mechanism; and measure the environmental impact of the deployment.

However, the complexity of the tasks coupled with time constraints meant that none of the teams finished all three, said Jose Arguelles, a software engineering major at the College of Computing and Informatics. ADAM ROV completed the most tasks within the least amount of time for the best performance.

“It was really real-world. The bottom of the pool where regionals was held was really ‘dusty,’ and we struggled a little bit with viewing the plane’s tail numbers,” said Arguelles. “In the ocean, yeah, the water wouldn’t be clear and it would be a lot deeper and salt water would give you different conditions. But this was a really challenging task for any level.”

Economics influenced the Club’s decision to choose an underwater competition, where design costs are lower, as opposed to, say, NASA robotics competitions that can cost upwards of $40,000. ADAM ROV was built, Patel said, on a $1,500 budget.

ADAM ROV features front and bottom pan-and-swivel cameras that can survey a 180-degree arc and a 20-meter tether designed to draw power from the surface. The ROV’s gyroscope can detect destabilization so the software can self-correct, and it has an amp sensor that lets team members know if the device is drawing too much current and is in danger of overheating. A dashboard replete with sensors and a claw for retrieval are also part of the robot. Much of the device was 3D-printed here at Drexel.

Growing as a Team

Patel stressed the multidisciplinary approach of the team, which includes undergraduates from CoE, mathematicians, and business. In fact, just Patel and one other student brought knowledge of the underwater robotics field to the club. Otherwise, Patel said, team members developed skills in vector math, software, electrical, 3D printing, and mechanical skills on the fly.

“In the past year, the team has grown tremendously from a technical and communication perspective, which enabled us to compete at the highest level. Although this growth did come without growing pains, it allowed us to become closer to each other creating a robotics family,” said Patel.

“During the regional MATE ROV event, I could see the passion and family environment which encompassed the up and downs of the competition. We followed our passion and believed in our team, which led us to compete at the highest level and make an impact at Drexel.”

In addition to Patel and Arguelles, team members include: Adam Feldscher, Adam Schiavone, Andy Huang, Arjun Pillai, Jacob Joseph, Jay Dave, Jordan Singer, Louis Feldman, Sarah Larkin, Nathaniel Albuck, Paula Klichinsky, and Shaun Sebastian.

Students were divided into mechanical, electrical, and software teams.

Asked how the Club managed to go so far in the span of about 12 months, Larkin, a pre-junior in biomedical engineering, gave all credit to Patel.

“I don’t think Prem ever became pessimistic,” Larkin said. “He dreams big.”

--By Wendy Plump, Staff Writer, CoE