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Underwater Robots Compete in NASA Astronaut Training Tank


Last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico drew attention to the use of underwater robots, more properly called remote-controlled vehicles, that served as the eyes and hands of operators above as they struggled to fix the leaking wellhead far below on the sea floor. Some 800 underwater robot enthusiasts from around the world came together recently in Houston for a competition at the Johnson Space Center's buoyancy laboratory where NASA trains its astronauts in a simulated weightless environment.

This is the final splashdown for students who have spent months designing, building and testing remote-controlled devices that operate underwater.

Under the rules of the competition, the teams cannot watch their devices directly and must rely on images sent back from onboard cameras. Keeping these cameras functioning is a big challenge.

In the competition, teams have several tasks to perform, such as using the device to pick up something and move it.

Their progress is monitored by NASA's underwater cameras, which are normally used here for astronaut training in this 12-meter-deep pool. The huge basin holds mock-up sections of the International Space Station, sitting in more than 23 million liters of water.

Building and maintaining these technological devices take a lot of work and malfunctions represent a constant challenge for contestants.

Among the youngest participants was 12-year-old Yumi Tang of the Chinese International School in Hong Kong.

"We spent long weekends over at the school, spending almost the whole day, from 10 o'clock to five," she said.

This year's winning team was from an all-boys, Catholic school, Jesuit High School of Carmichael, California. Parent and coach Rolf Konstad says team members are dedicated to their robots.

"Fortunately our school has a swimming pool, so that helps, but we meet every Saturday from about November until the competition, so it is quite a time commitment," noted Konstad.

This competition, sponsored by the California-based Marine Advanced Technology Education Center, is now in its 10th year.

But underwater ROVs have a much higher profile this time, because of their use last year in fixing the oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the men who came up with the idea for this contest is The Marine Technology Society's Drew Michel, who checks each device before it goes in the water.

He says using ROVs in deep water makes far more sense than sending humans in submarines.

"It is just not practical. You cannot work very long; you cannot work very efficiently and it is very dangerous," Michel explained.

He says ROVs can go much deeper than vehicles containing humans, as much as 6,000 meters.

ROVs are used extensively for oceanic research, but the oil and gas industry is the biggest user, followed by the communications industry, which uses them to service undersea cables.

Drew Michel says the competition helps many students find lucrative careers in this field.

"Some of those kids we are going to get in this industry and those kids will be the engineers that develop the future robots," Michel added.

Mackenzie Hitz, 15, from Coppell, Texas, may be one of them. "I am really interested in electrical engineering and this has given me a really good chance to learn more about it and how everything works and is put together," Hitz said.

She sees the possibility of future underwater robots programmed to carry out tasks independently. "Honestly, I think we are really heading in that direction with technology advancing so fast. I think we will be able to have robots that act on their own," she added.

Maybe the day will come when the robots themselves win the prizes. But for now, the awards go to the hardworking young humans who make and deploy these underwater devices.

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