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VIDEO: ODU's Engineering RobotX Team Competes in Hawaii

By Keith Pierce

When we hear the term, "unmanned systems," we almost immediately think of drones or autonomous cars.

But for the Old Dominion University RobotX team, it's all about the boat.

Last month, while most students were finishing the fall semester and preparing for their holiday break, six multidisciplinary engineering students were in Honolulu, competing with 14 other teams from three continents in the 2018 Maritime RobotX Challenge.

The week-long biennial competition, designed to foster student interest in autonomous systems, is supported by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and co-sponsored by the Association of Unmanned Vehicles International Foundation and NAVATEK, a Hawaii-based company that designs ships, small crafts and other amphibious vehicles.

"You learn a lot in your classes, but you don't really get to apply it to the real world until you get out of school," said Andrea Robey, co-captain and a junior majoring in modeling, simulation and visualization engineering. "By getting involved in opportunities like this, you're able to test those new skills and try those new methods on something real and see it in action. So this has been really rewarding."

RobotX teams use a common boat platform called the Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel (WAM-V). Each team must equip its vessel with hardware, software, sensors, propulsion and control systems. The vessel must be programmed to make independent decisions and complete assigned missions, including navigation, object identification, obstacle avoidance and data collection. Tasks must be completed without human guidance, intervention or remote control. Only five of the 15 teams qualified for the finals.

The ODU team attempted seven of the eight challenges; it was unable to compete in one because it lacked a required submersible.

"As a point of reference, however, there were six teams (including Georgia Tech and Michigan) that completed fewer tasks than we did and one team that completed the same tasks," said Yiannis Papelis, chief scientist and research professor at ODU's Virginia Modeling Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC). "That put us somewhere around seventh place in the unofficial rankings."

Teams also had to create a website and video, write a technical design paper outlining their work and give a presentation. Nearly $100,000 in cash prizes were up for grabs. The ODU team came home with $5,300.

"Our presentation and our technical review both received a lot of positive feedback," Robey said. "We won the 'Carpe Diem' award, which came with $3,500 in prize money, for 'always going for the challenge' and being willing to try anything. We also took second place for our website design, which was a $1,500 prize."

The team also received $300 for being a first-time competitor.

Nearly 40 ODU students from multidisciplinary engineering programs, including mechanical, electrical, and modeling, simulation and visualization engineering (MSVE), have been involved in the project - many through senior design projects - over the past year.

"Working as a multidisciplinary team in this competition gave us experience with engineering fields that we wouldn't have had otherwise, in addition to the experience presenting in detail our design and intentions to industry professionals in both group and one-on-one settings," explained Ntiana Sakioti, co-captain and MSVE graduate student. "Getting to know the other teams and judges was not only rewarding in terms of technical knowledge, but it also provided the opportunity to gain friendships and have a lot of fun."

The team also received support from ODU MSVE alum Johnny Garcia. He is the founder & CEO of SimIS, Inc., a modeling and simulation company in Portsmouth that often sponsors engineering internships.

"We're effectively studying approaches for making intelligent machines that can behave autonomously," Papelis said. "In the maritime domain, this is very important, which is why the U.S. Navy is heavily investing in unmanned vehicles."

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