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  • Bruce practicing in the pool at Caltech.
    Credit: Caltech Robotics Team
  • Bruce, the Caltech Robotics Team's entry in this year's International Robotics Competition.
    Credit: Caltech Robotics Team
07/29/2014 15:27:48

Sink or Swim: Students Prep for RoboSub Competition

For the past year, a team of Caltech students has been meeting at the campus pool on Sunday afternoons to prepare for a competition—but they haven't been shooting for faster lap times or flip turns. Advised by professor Joel Burdick of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, the students on the Caltech Robotics Team have been carefully crafting and optimizing their robotic submarine named Bruce—the team's entry in the 17th Annual International RoboSub Competition.

At the competition, which will take place in San Diego this week, Bruce and 38 competitors from around the world will be scored on how many tasks they can complete in 25 minutes. On their own, the tasks—pulling a lever, parking between two poles, and shooting little torpedoes at a target, for example—seem relatively simple. However, as a completely autonomous robot, Bruce is programmed to perform these tasks without the help of a human operator; when the competition begins, the team will hand Bruce over to a professional diver who will place the robot in the water and flip a switch.

The Caltech team is no stranger to competition—its robotic rover placed second in a 2012 NASA competition—but the contest this week will be Bruce's debut. And although the rookie robotic team member may get all the attention in San Diego, the 30 students who have been working to perfect Bruce are the team's real all-stars.

To learn more about Bruce—and the humans behind the robot—check out the roster of selected team leaders below:


Name: Bruce
Team title: robotic submarine
Year: 2014-?
Major: undecided
Summer plans: competing at the International RoboSub Competition in San Diego

A pair of unique attributes:
1. A pressurized hull. Like any watercraft, Bruce has to have a watertight body called a hull. Bruce's pressurized hull is pumped up with a bicycle pump the night before entering the water. If the pressure is the same in the morning, the team knows that Bruce is watertight and can safely enter the water without ruining expensive electronics.
2. A Doppler velocity logger (DVL). When you're driving a vehicle on land, the number of wheel rotations can tell you how fast and far a vehicle has traveled. Since this isn't possible in the water, a DVL sends out radar signals to the pool floor, measuring the Doppler shift of the return signals to determine the robot's position. DVLs are expensive, but the Caltech team was able to refurbish a broken one—a gift from a sponsor—for Bruce's upcoming competition.


Name: Solomon Chang
Team title: programming lead
Year: class of 2015
Major: computer science
Summer plans: interning at Google for the image search infrastructure team

What skills have you learned since joining the team?
On the robotics team, I have been able to channel the theoretical learning from my classes at Caltech into a practical form. In preparation for the competition, I've been working closely with a software team which involved working on 20,000 lines of code—something I'd never experienced in classes. Although it might sound cliché, I cannot begin to emphasize the usefulness of the robotics team in applying software concepts to the real world.


Name: Erin Evans
Team title: mechanical engineering subteam member/fundraising and outreach lead
Year: class of 2015
Major: mechanical engineering
Summer plans: SURF research with Professor Sergio Pellegrino in the Space Structures Laboratory

In addition to implementing a robotic submarine design, what have you learned from your time on the team?
It has been an extremely useful learning experience that has given me skills in team management, leadership, and collaborating with people with a wide range of working styles, not to mention all the technical experience I have gained from the engineering aspect of the team along the way. It's also great to work with my teammates. It is easy to see that we've grown closer through the hours and hours of work we have put into this project over the years.


Name: David Flicker
Team title: electrical lead
Year: class of 2015
Major: computer science
Summer plans: hardware engineering intern for Airware, a startup that makes autopilot systems

What is one of the major victories you've experienced so far with Bruce?
The greatest success for me was fitting all of the electronics into the newly completed pressurized hull. The hull was finished on a Friday, and we really wanted to try running Bruce in the water on a Sunday, so we had one day to carefully stuff the hull full of the required electronics. Besides the number of parts and connections we needed to make in that short amount of time, the "bigger" problem was that the components were all too large. We almost didn't fit the electronics inside the hull, which would have stopped us dead in our tracks—but luckily, we found a way to make it work.


Name: Justin Koch
Team title: project manager
Year: class of 2015
Major: mechanical engineering
Summer plans: robotics research with Disney Imagineering

What's the main thing you've been prepping in the final months before the competition?
The main thing we will be focusing on before the competition is the reliability of our system. While we won't be able to do every task, the ones we do attempt need to be consistently successful. As a rookie team, we probably won't be the best vehicle in the competition, but we will be the best at what we can do. Once we're done competing for the first time this year, we plan to return to the competition and win.

The 17th Annual International RoboSub Competition will take place July 29-August 3, 2014, at the SSC Pacific TRANSDEC in San Diego. On July 30, the Caltech Alumni Association will be hosting an event in San Diego to celebrate the team's first RoboSub competition. Find more information about the event here.

The team is advised by Joel Burdick, the Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering.

Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad