Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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Contact: Peter Vietti
Office of Naval Research

Start your engines -- student competition inspires teamwork and innovation

RoboBoats battle against one another and the clock

Nineteen teams, including the United States Naval Academy, participate in the 2012 Association for Unmanned System International (AUVSI) Foundation Office of Naval Research-sponsored RoboBoat autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) competition in Virginia Beach, Va. RoboBoat is a student robotics challenge in which teams race ASVs of their own design through an aquatic obstacle course. The AUVSI Foundation is a charitable organization that provides students with the opportunity to experience fun, hands-on robotics activities that advance STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math). (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

ARLINGTON, Va.—In a race against one another and the clock, robotic boats will battle it out at the 6th International RoboBoat Competition, slated for July 8-14.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR)-co-sponsored competition will take place on a pond at the Founder's Inn and Spa in Virginia Beach, Va. The event will feature 15 student teams racing their custom-designed and built boats.

"Our goal is to boost awareness and generate interest for students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] through RoboBoat and similar challenges," said Kelly Cooper, a program officer in ONR's Sea Warfare and Weapons department. "This is the best way to provide examples and hands-on experience to those students so that they want to join our workforce or become part of the research community."

This year's event has a mission that consists of three sets of tasks—one mandatory and two optional for the opportunity to gain extra points. The first measures propulsion strength, navigation and speed by passing through a set of gates; the second is accurately navigating a winding channel marked by buoys; and the third involves multiple challenges, including retrieving a ball from a landing zone, activating a sprinkler system, capturing a flag, shooting foam arrows through hoops and playing a high-tech afloat version of rock-paper-scissors.

Each student team has 25 minutes to get through as many tasks as possible to earn the maximum points in a single run. A team may make multiple attempts within the time limit but may only count the points from its final attempt. This forces teams to think strategically, since additional attempts at the course will place their previous point accumulation in jeopardy.

Teams from Georgia Tech Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory and the University of Rhode Island compete in the 2012 Office of Naval Research-sponsored RoboBoat autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) competition held in Virginia Beach, Va. The competition provides an opportunity for students to develop skills in system engineering by accomplishing realistic missions with autonomous vehicles in the maritime environment. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

Additionally, prior to the competition, teams also must create a website and submit a journal paper about their work. These tasks mirror what scientists at ONR and in government, industry and academia routinely do to communicate with other members of the scientific community and the public.

As one of the largest sponsors of the competition, ONR will have several of its program officers at the event, serving as judges and mentors.

Contestants also have the benefit of access to the Naval Engineering Support Team (NEST), comprised of subject-matter experts from Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Systems Center Pacific, Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Carderock Division, NSWC Panama City, Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport and NUWC Division Keyport. The NEST is available to help get those teams just forming to ramp up quickly and be ready to compete and also provide a link between students interested in autonomous systems and the naval workforce.

Creating and fostering this link between scientists and students supports the Department of the Navy's ongoing commitment to finding and developing the service's future STEM workforce.

"RoboBoat helps young people become aware of internships and job opportunities at ONR and in the Navy," Cooper said. "There is a legacy of these students being hired by the government and industry working in related areas."

To further interest in the competition and others in the series, event co-sponsor Association of Unmanned Vehicles International (AUVSI) Foundation has started an online community called RoboNation for those interested in robotics to interact with one another.

"RoboNation puts a fun spin on the educational value of robotics," said Daryl Davidson, AUVSI Foundation executive director. "Citizens of RoboNation can develop and drive the content by uploading pictures and videos and through online communication with each other. RoboNation also includes listings of events, activities and resources that appeal to robotics enthusiasts of all ages and abilities."

The event will be live-streamed to the RoboBoat website on July 14 from 1-5 p.m. at http://www.roboboat.org. The site also provides information about the event, photos from last year's competition and an overview video from a previous year.