September 2, 2009

Underwater Vehicle Team Lands Honors

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While the members of the Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle team might not have been huffing and puffing after their most recent competition, they still blew away the competition.
“We won in a pretty spectacular way,” said Erin Fischell ’10, CUAUV team leader. “Our vehicle completed the entire course. No other team has [completed the entire course] since the MIT team in 2002.” 
From July 28 to Aug. 2, CUAUV participated in the 12th annual Autonomous Underwater Vehicle competition, clinching its first win since 2003. Up against 29 other student teams from the United States, Canada, India, Korea and Japan, the CUAUV-designed, unmanned robotic submarine — dubbed “Nova” by the team — sank the competition, and earned $10,000 in doing so.
The international competition, jointly hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Office of Naval Research, took place in San Diego from July 28 to Aug. 2.
The annual AUVSI/ONR competition presents a complex set of underwater tasks for the entries. The autonomous underwater vehicles are expected to pass through an underwater gate, follow a path, hit a buoy, destroy a mock machine gun nest with small torpedoes, perform a “bombing run” over simulated targets, recover secret documents from a briefcase and ultimately surface through an octagonal shape.
Nova, powered by two lithium polymer batteries, was the only submarine to successfully complete every segment of the rigorous course. 
Since its inception in 1999, CUAUV has developed into a highly structured team of 30 undergraduate students, consisting of both engineers and non-engineers. Several subgroups of the team focus on specific tasks, including software, propulsion and business management.
The depth and experience of CUAUV members helped the team continue to function smoothly. The team annually recruits freshmen and sophomores to refill its ranks, allowing for a well-balanced and experienced team each year.
“We have a more mature team this year — perhaps the most mature team in the team’s history,” Fischell said, explaining that last year’s team was made up of younger members. This year, however, a majority of the same members will be returning with one year of experience — and the taste of victory — under their belts.
CUAUV is loosely monitored by three faculty advisors: Prof. Graeme Bailey, computer science; Prof. Bruce Land, electrical and computer engineering; and Prof. Alan Zehnder, mechanical and aerospace engineering.
“This team is very student-driven,” Zehnder said. “The design, planning and development of the vehicle are all at the discretion of the students.” Zehnder cited strong team leadership, constant testing and continuous learning from mistakes as some of the primary factors behind the success of CUAUV.
In the wake of its recent win, CUAUV is already brainstorming and designing a new autonomous submarine for next year’s competition. And the implications go beyond the criteria of the competition: the autonomous underwater vehicle will help in various research endeavors.
Nova has already been used for environmental surveys on Cayuga Lake, according to Fischell.
Benjamin Seidenberg ’10, the software subgroup leader, also discussed the practical purposes that can be served by the autonomous underwater vehicle the team is designing and improving.
“We’re looking to go toward a flexible platform that will do well in competition as well as offer practical research use,” Seidenberg said.