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MIT Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Dives to Beat Competition in Florida

By Michael M. Torrice

The mission they chose to accept was to build an underwater vehicle that could navigate on its own.

In the process, a group of MIT students smoked its competition by garnering first place at the first annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition held in Panama City, Fla. this summer.

At the competition, the vehicles had to travel a course in twenty minutes by passing through six gates and depositing a marker at the lowest point of a marked three by three meter area.

By passing through two of the six gates, the MIT secured first place at the competition. None of the three other teams, from Stevens Institute of Technology, the University of Florida, and Johns Hopkins University, could pass through the gates.

"[Designing the vehicle] combined the problems of building a robot while dealing with the problems of building a sub," said team member Seth O. Newburg '00. The ORCA-1, MIT's entry, was a five foot long sub made of PVC [polyvinyl chloride] pipes. Filled with different sensors to measure depth and pressure, the ORCA-1 was controlled by a Pentium processor computer running Linux. The team communicated with the sub's computer via a radio link.

For the first three days of August, the ORCA-1 joined subs from three other universities for the competition. All four universities shared their solutions and even gave them a test run in the hotel pool. "All the teams were competitive, but they were all friendly and showed us their subs," Newburg said.

Leading up to the day of competition, two shifts of students worked on the ORCA-1. During the day, the programmers tried to refine ORCA-1's depth contour algorithm, which allowed the sub to navigate autonomously. At night, the mechanical team repaired any physical damage to the sub.

Team faces glitches on contest day

Despite the work of the 17 team members, the competition day was not free of problems. The first problem the team encountered was with the sub's batteries. "It was the 6.270 problem when the batteries were fully charged, the motors ran too fast and the sub pitched downward," said Ara N Knaian '99. After running the motors for a bit, the battery problem was solved.

Once the ORCA-1 began to travel the course, another problem surfaced. The sub's computer would communicate to the team when it was about to enter a gate. This radio transmission interfered with a pressure sensor and caused the ORCA-1 to miss the gates. With five minutes remaining, the team commented out radio transmissions in the code and recompiled the navigation program.

Students plan to compete again

The MIT team received a $5,000 prize for their victory. They were also invited to watch real AUVs and speak with the engineers who designed them at a naval demonstration. The Navy is looking for subs like the ORCA-1 that would be capable of disarming mines and other tasks hazardous to humans.

With 11 months before next year's competition, the MIT team is looking to improve their designs. "I envision we will rebuild from the bottom up to get out the bugs," Newburg said.

Anyone interested in being a part of the 1999 ORCA-1 team should send e-mail to orca@mit.edu.