UF-Designed Robotic Submarine To Compete In ‘Underwater Steeplechase’
GAINESVILLE — Robotic submarines could one day seek and destroy underwater mines or rescue lost cave divers running out of oxygen.
But for now, University of Florida engineering students at work on a 90-pound submersible known as “Subjugator” have a less ambitious goal: beat the competition in the first International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition set for Monday.
Subjugator, which looks a little like Star Wars’ R2D2 with propellers, will compete next week with robotic submarines from three other universities in a large oval pond at the U.S. Navy’s Coastal System Station in Panama City. The goal: to pass under a series of gates in the 110-meter-long pond without any remote-control guidance. Once the robots are launched, only judges will be able to intercede, and then only to trip a remote-control “kill switch” on the submarines in case things go awry.
Student designers are confident Subjugator will do well in the underwater steeplechase despite the considerable technical challenges of combining underwater travel with robotic maneuvering in such a small vehicle.
“I think very difficult’ might be an understatement, but I believe we are going to perform well,” said Scott Nichols, a UF senior double majoring in electrical and computer engineering and one of Subjugator’s designers.
A group of engineering students in the College of Engineering’s Machine Intelligence Laboratory (MIL) built Subjugator two years ago for a competition later canceled because UF was the only contestant.
The submarine uses four boat trolling motors to propel itself vertically and horizontally and to turn in the water. Compressed air in tanks at its base give it the ability to float at a chosen depth. A 12-volt marine battery serves as the power plant.
When Subjugator was tested in a pool while attached to a remote-control guidance system, it proved a natural in the water. A videotape shows it swimming, turning and diving, its surprisingly graceful motions belying its ungainly shape. So powerful is the thrust from Subjugator’s motors it can pull swimmers through the water.
After the test, some of the electronics used to control the motors failed, and Nichols and David Novick, a UF doctoral student in mechanical engineering, are busy engineering more reliable replacements. They expect to use sonar for the guidance system, with TaeHoon Choi, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering, programming Subjugator’s on-board computer to control its movements.
“The bulk of my contribution will be the actual programming of Subjugator’s intelligent behaviors, including giving it the ability to follow walls, avoid obstacles and other actions that will allow it to pass through the gates,” Choi said.
The competition calls for the subs to pass through six gates and surface in a target zone, a high standard but not an impossible one, Nichols said.
“Getting through the first gate will be the biggest challenge, and doing that could put us on a track to win,” Nichols said.
Once perfected, robotic submarines have many possible uses, said Eric Schwartz, assistant director of the MIL and a lecturer in the electrical and computer engineering department. The submersibles could clear mines from underwater minefields and serve as “dive buddies” for cave divers or other divers who might bring the robots on excursions as a safety measure, he and the students said.
“It’s like having a life preserver that’s a smart life preserver,” Schwartz said.
UF’s rivals in Monday’s competition are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Practice runs and an open house for the public to view the robotic submarines are set for Sunday afternoon at the Navy Coastal System Station. The competition is sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the U.S. Office of Naval Research.
- Christopher Davis
- Scott Nichols
- David Novick