Underwater on a Mission with ROVbotnica

To witness STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in action, travel to Whidbey Island on Puget Sound, Washington. Here, five middle and high school students operate their self-designed Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) underwater as they train for the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Regional Challenge on May 11, 2013. Named Atlantis Inc., the team has designed and created their own ROV, which they drive at the Island Athletic Club pool in preparation for the competition at the King County Aquatic Center.

Derrick and Haley replace a resistor in the bidirectional motor controller .

Derrick and Haley replace a resistor in the bidirectional motor controller.

Atlantis Inc. includes Haley McConnaughey, Hannah McConnaughey, Derrick Riley, Austin Drake, and Chris Wilson. The group trains eight hours a week for the daunting event. “The PNW Challenge has some of the toughest competition,” said mentor Ashley McConnaughey. “They will face 20 different high school teams.”

In the competition, the team will finish four missions in the span of fifteen minutes. They will complete a primary node and install a scientific instrument on the sea floor. They will design, construct, and install a temperature sensor over a hydrothermal vent opening and measure temperature over time. The team will replace an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) on a mid-water column mooring platform. Finally, they will remove biofouling from structures within the observatory. They receive points for steps throughout the process and teams placing first, second, and third move on to the 12th Annual Mate International ROV competition in June.

In addition to the science involved in the project, Hannah McConnaughey, 16, enjoys the entrepreneurial aspects of the business operations, which involve finance, research and development, and media outreach. This is her third competition. Her sister, Haley McConnaughey, 13, now entering her fourth competition, revels in the collaborative idea sessions that have led to the team’s innovation. “Our team comes up with outrageous ideas that actually work,” she enthused.

The team's form for calculating propeller pitch.

The team’s form for calculating propeller pitch.

Their ROV, dubbed ROVbotnica, utilizes clean, simple systems for quick and efficient operation under any conditions. Team members hand-fabricated many of its components. “At their last meeting, they cut and bored shafts, hand-made propellers bored into cylinders, and cut and shaped the pitch of the propeller,” explained Ashley McConnaughey.

The cameras used on the ROV are also fabricated by the team using fish-eye lenses, epoxy, plexiglass, and PVC piping. The team designed and created their hydraulics system using PVC, aquarium tubing, two alternating valves, and built their own hydraulic compressor.

Atlantis, Inc. has garnered several sponsorships from local and national companies who have provided equipment, practice space, or discounts. The team will be using the Cole-Parmer® Workhorse Thermocouple Thermometer and a special-order probe from Cole-Parmer on their mission to install a temperature sensor over a hydrothermal vent and measure the temperature.

Between the adventures of working underwater to complete the missions and the teamwork involved in pulling it all together, team members are gaining valuable real-world experience.  “These missions deal with real science,” said Ashley McConnaughey. “They are based on the real-life use of ROVs.”

In addition to competitions, the team members support STEM education. They organized an outreach exhibit last August that featured the NASA Curiosity ROVer and provided two other robots for hands-on piloting by the public.

“We have learned an immense amount about electricity, trigonometry, hydraulics, and engineering,” summarized Team Captain Hannah McConnaughey. “We’ve learned even more about problem-solving, teamwork, critical thinking, and the power of creativity. Through ROV, we’ve developed skills we’ll be using all of our lives.”

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