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Thundering towards nationals: UM Autonomy Team

Buoyed by a sleek new hull design, the University of Michigan autonomous boat team finished third out of 16 competitors in the 2015 Roboboat competition, held recently in Virginia Beach, Virginia.| Medium Read
UM:Autonomy is an award winning, undergraduate team from the University of Michigan.

Buoyed by a sleek new hull design, the University of Michigan autonomous boat team finished third out of 16 competitors in the 2015 Roboboat competition, held recently in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The team’s performance, a dramatic improvement over the 2014 competition, earned them a $3,000 cash prize.

Team members attributed the success of this year’s boat, SharkByte, to a new hull strategy that sealed the boat’s electronics into a waterproof case. This was a major change from previous designs, which were not waterproof and required electronics to ride high above the water to avoid damage. The new hull enabled the boat to ride lower in the water, improving handling and stability.

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IMAGE:  Members of the UM Autonomy Team test their autonomous boat in the Lurie Reflecting Pool. Photo: Joseph Xu

“We were all ecstatic at how well SharkByte performed,” said team member and U-M electrical engineering student Marisa Witcpalek. “Because of the more stable hull design, we were able to design stronger software this year, and I think it all came together really well.”

Also key to the team’s success was the boat’s navigation and propulsion systems, which were carefully matched to help the boat maneuver more precisely and avoid obstacles. This was a big part of the team’s strategy, since the competition is scored with a points system that penalizes boats for hitting buoys and other obstacles.

“Most teams design their navigation and propulsion systems independently,” said Evan Lee, a team member and a student in the U-M Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering program. “We carefully calibrated the two systems together so that the boat can make more precise maneuvers. We also used four thrusters instead of the usual two, which makes the boat faster and enables it to make sharper turns.”

The competition was the culmination of the six-day RoboBoat event. Teams earned points for completing a variety of tasks including obstacle avoidance, channel navigation, autonomous docking and other challenges. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University took top honors in the competition and Florida Atlantic University finished second.

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IMAGE:  Members of the UM Autonomy Team test their autonomous boat in the Lurie Reflecting Pool. Photo: Joseph Xu

Eight students from the U-M Autonomy team traveled to the competition, marking the eighth consecutive year that U-M has participated. Competitors included the Georgia Institute of Technology, Villanova University and the University of Florida.

U-M Autonomy builds a new boat for each RoboBoat competition. This year’s team included approximately 20 members from a variety of disciplines including Naval Engineering and Marine Architecture, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and others. Lee said it was a great opportunity to get outside the classroom and put theory into practice.

“RoboBoat is totally physical,” Lee said. “We can build the boat, we can see where the waterlines are, and that’s a really big deal. “Seeing your creation hit the water for the first time is the coolest thing.”

RoboBoat is organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a non-profit organization that focuses on the future of the robotics industry, developing programs that will attract and equip students for a career in the field. Other events held by the foundation include RoboSub, the Maritime RobotX Challenge and the National SeaPerch Challenge.

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