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RobotX: UM Team prepares autonomous boat for competition in Hawaii

Without human intervention or remote control assistance, 19 teams from 6 countries will meet this December to compete in the Maritime RobotX Challenge. | Medium Read
IMAGE:  The Michigan RobotX Team tests their WAM-V for the RobotX competition

Advancements in autonomous vehicle technology are moving fast by land, air and now – by sea. That’s why RoboNation is hosting the Maritime RobotX Challenge, its most complex robotic competition to date. This December, 19 surface vessels will face off in Hawaii to see who can build the one with the most impressive autonomous capabilities.

Team Michigan RobotX will be there pushing the envelope of autonomous surface vessel technology with their 16-ft Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel (WAM-V) and hoping to take home 1st place in a range of tasks including obstacle avoidance, object detection, and recovery, and signal recognition.

One of the benefits of the WAM-V model is its modular construction allowing for complete assembly or disassembly in a one hour time-frame.
IMAGE:  Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel (WAM-V) testing on 9/15/18.

The Vessel

Each team is provided with a 16-ft Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel (WAM-V) for the Challenge. Also known as “The Spider Ship” due to its unusual design, the unmanned twin hull catamaran is an experimental watercraft developed by Marine Advanced Research to be highly adaptable, scalable, modular, and transportable.

It uses unique suspension technology with an articulating system of springs, shocks, and ball joint that allows the vessel to operate in environments where normal vessels can’t navigate. The structure consists of four legs connecting the superstructure to the outriggers and since the inflatable pontoon hulls are able to move individually with the water, the vessel can travel with waves instead of through them. The entire system creates a more stable, fast, energy-efficient vessel. Constructed with titanium, aluminum and reinforced fabrics, the WAM-V is also lightweight and low cost, making it the perfect option for this challenge.

Teams start from a basic WAM-V design and must then outfit that base with a variety of sensors, software, and hardware to enable its autonomous capabilities. The Michigan RobotX team has installed a FLIR Systems 360 degree camera, multiple Velodyne LiDAR sensors, and Advanced Navigation GPS/IMU system.


Demonstrating Navigational Control of the autonomous WAM-V

The Challenge

Though this will be the 3rd iteration of the RobotX Challenge, it will be the first for a University of Michigan team. It will take place in Hawaii from December 8-15th and will consist of three phases; Practice and Qualifying on Challenge Courses, Semi-finals Round (where teams must complete runs on Competition Courses), and Finals Round. Teams are challenged to complete up to 8 tasks. These challenges are designed to represent real-world research and applications including military uses, biological studies, ocean exploration, and sea rescue.

EnlargeRobotX Maritime Challenge Task 5: Find Totems
IMAGE:  RobotX Maritime Challenge Task 5: Find Totems

Challenge tasks include:

  • Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Launch and Recovery
  • Demonstrating navigation and control through Start and End Gates
  • Avoiding Obstacles
  • Finding Totems
  • Scanning a code of colored light sequence
  • Identifying symbols and docks
  • Underwater Ring Recovery via the WAM-V’s AUV

Navigation and control will be particularly daunting this year as buoys will be placed throughout the operating area as opposed being one specific task like in previous years. Hitting a buoy will result in instant disqualification.

Although RobotX IS a competition, the overall goal is one of community and cooperation. Robonation is a robotics community that wants to bring together like-minded STEM students and enthusiasts and to foster the development of their ideas and technology in this growing industry.

$100,000 USD will be awarded in cash prizes, for overall standings, best journal, documentation, appendix, website, team video, presentation, and inspection.

EnlargeThe Michigan RobotX Team prepares their WAM-V for the Challenge.
IMAGE:  The Michigan RobotX Team prepares their WAM-V for the Challenge.

The Team

Team Lead: James Coller, 2nd Year PhD Student, Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering
Controls Co-Leads: Laura Chrobak, 2nd Year PhD Student, Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering & Sam Taylordean 2nd Year PhD Student, Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering
Software Co-Leads: Sahib Dhanjal, 2nd Year MS Student, Robotics Institute & Mike Syniewski, 4th year PhD Student, Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering
Faculty Advisor:
David Singer, Associate Professor, Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering

The Michigan RobotX team consists of three faculty advisors, four industry mentors, and a multidisciplinary team of sixteen undergraduate and graduate students with backgrounds in the fields of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Robotics, and Computer Science.

Sam Taylordean is a 2nd year Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering Ph.D. student and works on the vessel’s hardware. She explains the limitations that come with being a new group in the competition. “Several other teams have developed hardware and software packages from previous competitions. With that in mind, we’ve focused our efforts on certain tasks. We aim to complete 6/8 tasks.”

We're working hard now to account for wind loads in our control systems. Those kind of things are what can set us apart from the competition.Team Lead James Coller

The team successfully ran their WAM-V in full autonomous mode for the first time last weekend. Team Lead James Coller explains that environmental factors can affect navigational control and may end up being the team’s biggest hurdle. “We’re working hard now to account for wind loads in our control systems. Those kind of things are what can set us apart from the competition.”

What the team lacks in prior experience, they more than make up for with effort and enthusiasm. “There’s a huge amount of opportunity in the field of autonomy,” explains Taylordean, “and this competition is such a great place to take what we’ve learned and showcase it on an international stage. I feel optimistic about our chances and am excited to see how we fare in the challenge!”


RobotX Maritime Challenge Task 5: Find Totems
The Michigan RobotX Team prepares their WAM-V for the Challenge.
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