Naperville North students compete in underwater robotics competition

While he and his teammates were proud of their accomplishments, waiting until two weeks before the competition might not have been the best idea, Dylan Coupe pondered aloud.

The senior was one of seven students from Naperville North who competed last weekend in the Shedd Aquarium Midwest regional of the Marine Advanced Technology Center’s (MATE) 2014 Challenge to search simulated shipwrecks at the bottom of a pool.

Dylan admitted that if the team started a bit earlier, they might have had the time to fully test their remote operated vehicle in the water and troubleshoot the various issues they faced at Saturday’s competition at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That is all part of the learning process, said Mark Rowzee, team adviser for the Naperville North robotics team.

“What works in your head sometimes doesn’t translate out in the real world,” he said.

Rowzee takes an advisory role when it comes to creating the remote vehicle. He said he might ask questions that will get the students thinking and focus their discussions. But when it comes to design, programming and repairs, Rowzee takes a hand-off approach.

“I’m basically here to make sure they don’t shock themselves,” he said, before turning to the students to remind them to turn off the power to the vehicle because the wires they were working on were smoking.

Having the project be student-driven is exactly what Deidre Sullivan, principal investigator and director of MATE, wants from every entry. She said the goal of the challenge is to integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics in a realistic way for students.

“We want active learners, It is most important. We want them to develop a vision where they want to go and see that vision through,” Sullivan said.

She said her organization works with experts to create real-world scenarios. This year’s challenge involved exploring the Great Lakes and shipwrecks, sinkholes and conservation in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Mich.

Known as one of the most treacherous areas of water within the Great Lakes system, “Shipwreck Alley” features unpredictable weather, murky fog banks, sudden gales, and rocky shoals. More than 50 shipwrecks have been discovered within the marine sanctuary.

The area is also filled with geologic features such as sinkholes caused by the erosion of limestone sediments. These sinkholes are home to microbes that live in water that is 10 times more conductive and contains sulfates 100 times more than the surrounding lake water.

Scientists studying the wrecks and the underwater environment need remote vehicles that can help identify the ships, take samples within the sinkholes, and remove debris from the sanctuary.

The MATE 2014 challenge reflects the need of those scientists.

Members of Naperville North’s Huskie Robotics team started their day dealing with circuit breakers that were constantly blowing because their cameras required too much power. Because the vehicle goes in the water, passing the safety inspection is critical, and electrical problems are a tremendous safety issue.

The team’s assigned safety inspection had to be pushed back until members fully addressed the power problem.

After passing the safety check with flying colors, the team faced new challenges of a depleted battery and issues of buoyancy.

With low battery levels, the vehicle could not move nor could team members see via the camera until judges were able to track down another battery. Frustrations continued as the vehicle was too heavy and dragged on the bottom of the UIC pool.

The Naperville team was given a second shot, but because of ealier delays, members had only 10 minutes to make adjustments before heading back to the pool.

During the team’s next run, the buoyancy was addressed but the vehicle became tangled in the simulated wreckage and was unable to maneuver properly.

In the end, Naperville North would not repeat in qualifying for the international competition. Chicago teams advancing to the contest at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary are Eli Whitney and John Hancock College Prep High School, both of Chicago.

Rowzee said this year will be chalked up as a lesson learned. He said the students who will be back next year already are thinking about getting a jump on the 2015 challenge as soon as it is announced.

Sullivan said work on the 2015 challenge will start in mid-August so that by Nov. 1 the outline, specifications and rules can be sent out to schools everywhere.