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Domo arigato, Mr. Underwater Roboto

Austin Drake, Hannah McConnaughey and Haley McConnaughey work on the propulsion of their underwater bot and its trial objects. Behind them are Chris Wilson and Derrick Riley. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Austin Drake, Hannah McConnaughey and Haley McConnaughey work on the propulsion of their underwater bot and its trial objects. Behind them are Chris Wilson and Derrick Riley.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

When the robots rise against humanity, blame a handful of South Whidbey teens.

Five Whidbey Island kids bested some of the Northwest’s top teen minds at an underwater robotics competition.

Atlantis Inc. ROV (remotely operated vehicle) won first place at the MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) Pacific Northwest regional event, beating 14 teams from Seattle, Mount Vernon and Gig Harbor in the Ranger class for older students.

Whidbey’s own robotics engineers advance to the international competition hosted in their own waters, so to speak, June 20-22 at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” said Chris Wilson, the ROV’s pilot. “It was a big step from where we were last year.”

Back in 2012, the promising Atlantis team from Whidbey suffered a major setback. A fuse blew on their bot’s control board, rendering it almost completely ineffective in the water trials.

A hard lesson was learned that day. The new control board is kept in an old hardbody luggage bag and it’s rife with light fuses that illuminate when they malfunction, making it easier for the engineer to find and replace it. Also the fuses are visible on the control board, rather than underneath other hardware.

Other tweaks to their bot’s design include a major game changer. Atlantis Inc. made the bot’s manipulator, its functioning arm that can grab and pull, able to move up and down. The new function allows the ROV pilot to be a little off with navigation, and the bot can still reach its target in the water trials.

Water trials are based on real installation of submerged internet cables. The bot’s trials simulate a real ROV removing organic matter from the cables, placing objects into designated areas, opening and closing a hatch parallel with the pool floor, disconnecting a plug or a “precision maneuvering task,” dropping a milk carton into a set space and removing and replacing an ocean bottom seismometer.

Even during the team‚Äôs water trials at the regional competition, it was not smooth sailing — not that it ever was wind-powered. One of the bot’s two propellers malfunctioned and was later replaced by one with wider blades.

“Obviously it didn’t impede us too much,” said Hannah McConnaughey, the team’s public relations expert.

Atlantis Inc. won the regional event with an overall score of 492.5 points. The Whidbey squad scored like gangbusters on its engineering presentation with 86 out of 90 possible and 50 out of 51 on its poster. The mission had a max total of 320 points, the technical report was worth 90 and a safety inspection allowed for another 30.

Ever aware of their standing, the members of Atlantis nervously awaited the scoring results. They had crunched their scores conservatively. When the third-place score was announced at 462.5 points, the kids’ hopes were shaken, but not gone.

Once they heard second-place AMNO & CO’s total of 480, the Whidbey youngsters thought they missed out again.

Then, the announcer called out the total of 492.5 points, awarded to Atlantis Inc.

“I was in shock,” Hannah said.

A lot of work went into the Whidbey team’s success story. They were able to practice in the North Whidbey Parks and Recreation District’s Oak Harbor pool, which was deep enough to simulate some of the issues presented at the Federal Way pool. Regular practices were held at the Island Athletic Club in Freeland, which closed part of its pool for the robotics students.

They also received sponsorship in materials from several businesses. In total, the Atlantic Inc. bot costs about $550, and they competed against teams with bots from $5,000 to $15,000.

As the Pacific Northwest regional champions, the Whidbey kids were asked to join the Seattle Science Fest and host an underwater robotics class.

Atlantis Inc. takes on international competition June 20-22.

 

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