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MIT Sub Sinks Its Competition

By Matt Lehman

A team of MIT students and alumni won the 2nd annual International Underwater Autonomous Vehicle competition held in Panama City, Florida.

The victory marked the second straight year that MIT’s submarine, the ORCA-1, defeated formidable entries from the University of Florida, The Stevens Institute of Technology, and Johns Hopkins University. Newcomers to the competition this year included Florida-Atlantic University and the Naval Academy of Annapolis, MD.

Each submarine was challenged to independently pass through six underwater gates three meters below the surface, and travel onto a tarp at the finish line within a maximum time of twenty minutes.

The performance of each team was decidedly improved over last year.

The MIT team attributes this to the fact that there was a concrete plan during the designing process. “Last year we kind of did things piecemeal; this year we had a model to go on and a organized strategy right from the beginning,” said ORCA team co-founder Seth O. Newburg ’00.

Competition has exciting finish

MIT won last year’s competition by passing through only two of the six gates. The ORCA-1 was the only submarine able to pass through any of the gates.

This year however, every team managed to pass through at least one of the targets.

“It was kind of exciting because both Florida and ourselves had been able to pass through all six gates in practice,” added Newburg.

Florida’s sub was the penultimate to be tested, and MIT’s was positioned last.

“When they [Florida] began their trial, they tried to put pressure on us by completing the course faster than we had in practice,” said Newburg.

“Fortunately for us, they probably started off too fast which caused their sub to miss the final two gates,” Newburg said.

A portion of the five-thousand dollar prize awarded to the team was allocated to pay for this year’s sub, which ran overbudget.

Funding sources for the ORCA team were diverse and included the Office of the President and Provost, the mechanical engineering department and the Media Lab, among others.

Sub design improved

The ORCA-1 used a system of downward facing sonar and pressure sensors as a guidance system in order to determine its depth and where the gates were.

Essentially, the ORCA team followed the same pattern as last year except this year they were able to avoid configurations and parts that didn’t work to specifications.

The team was composed entirely of current students and recent alumni, with minimal guidance from professors.

The students came from a variety of academic backgrounds -- including Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (VI), Mechanical Engineering (II), and Ocean Engineering (XIII) -- contributing to the interdisciplinary nature of the endeavor.