April 7, 2010

No Rubber Ducks In This Tub

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This year was the 11th year that the Cornell Underwater Autonomous Vehicle team (CUAUV) built a vehicle for the annual collegiate autonomous underwater vehicle competition in San Diego. Leila Zheng ’11, the CUAUV P.R. spokesperson explained the group’s purpose, “We build [an] autonomous robotic vehicle every year for … the competition in July.” She continued, “I think in the 11 years that we’ve been in the competition we won the best design award for the past seven or eight years, so we usually do pretty well in terms of design.”

J.B. Rajsky ’11 was one of about 10 team members who stayed in Ithaca last summer to prepare for the competition in San Diego, which was held during the last week of July, consisted of three days of qualifying rounds and a final round on the last day. As in other years, last year’s competition was held at the Navy Transdec facility, which, “is part of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Facility,” Rajsky explained.

Rajsky enjoyed last summer’s competition not only because it gave him the opportunity to meet previous CUAUV team leaders, but also because, “It was really interesting to see how all the different schools approached the same problem and also to talk to all the people in the industry who came for recruiting.” In Rajsky’s eyes, Cornell’s first-place finish was another bonus to the staying in Ithaca to prepare for the summer trip: “Having everything work this year and come together for the competition was really nice compared to last year where nothing really worked. I think that testing every day over the summer really paid off.”

Though constructing a new vehicle every year is no cheap task, many of the expensive parts it requires are donated as gifts in kind. Team Leader Erin Fischell ’10 said, “If it weren’t for a lot of gifts in kind we’d never be able to do it.” Although the group’s budget is already much larger than many other student groups, Fischell said that the group’s budget would be much larger if these gifts in kind were included in the annual budget calculations. “The parts alone would cost between $75,000 and $100,000.” She added, “If it were built in industry then labor would count [so] it would probably be a 2 million dollar maybe 5 million dollar cost.”

Considering the large sums of money involved, perhaps it is not surprising that CUAUV is has a very rigorous admissions process. Each fall, interested undergrads — usually about 60 of them — start the process by completing an application.  “Then,” Fischell explained, “we call about half [the applicants] back for a phone interview and usually we take about 20 to 30 percent. It’s extremely selective; it’s an intensive process.”  Zheng added, “We usually target our recruiting towards freshmen because we like people to have a lot of years on the team.”

In addition to being more costly than the average student group, CUAUV also requires a larger time commitment than most. Fischell puts in about 70 hours per week and addition to the ample lab time all sub-teams require, all team members must be present at Teagle on Sundays for team meetings and the weekly hour-long pool tests that follow. Right before the first of this month’s weekly pool tests, Fischell explained, “We have a new vehicle — Tachyon — which we’re about to begin testing. We have our first static test with it today and then two weeks from now we are going to put it in the water with all the electronics and start control testing.”  RLD

Original Author: Keri Blakinger