Purdue University Team Tackles Global Underwater-Vehicle Competition

Kyle Rakos
Alex Ruffino
Charles Li
Katherine Mao
Luke McBee
Ryan McBee
Matt Molo
Sanay Shah
Ian Sibley
Tyler Stagge

Pages: 106–110

Abstract—Each year, the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center holds a remotely operated underwater-vehicle competition, with students from around the world undertaking tasks that simulate real-world implementations. A Purdue University team took home two first-place team awards and an individual achievement award. The web extra at https://youtu.be/wI9a4O4CgmU highlights the Purdue University student group as it designed, built, and piloted a remotely operated underwater vehicle.

Keywords—challenge-based learning; Marine Advanced Technology Education Center; MATE; competition; student; remotely operated vehicle; ROV; Purdue University


Organizations deploy ROVs (remotely operated underwater vehicles) to sites for which sending humans is too dangerous or expensive. Oil companies, militaries, scientists, and engineers dispatch these tethered robots to inspect and repair offshore oil rigs, collect mines and torpedoes, and perform research in the ocean’s deepest parts.

For students, ROV development can be a challenging yet fruitful educational endeavor. A Purdue University student group runs the Purdue IEEE ROV Team, which annually designs, builds, and pilots an ROV that competes at the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center’s international ROV competition, undertaking tasks that simulate real-world implementations.

The Competition

The MATE Center supports STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education via ROV-related activities. A group of organizations founded MATE in 1997 with US National Science Foundation funding. The mission, according to the group’s website (www.marinetech.org/mission), is to challenge students to use marine technology and STEM to solve “problems in a way that strengthens critical thinking, collaboration, entrepreneurship, and innovation.”

For the past 16 years, MATE has hosted an annual ROV competition for elementary through college students worldwide. Teams design and build ROVs to tackle missions modeled after real-world oceanic-workplace scenarios. Each year, MATE announces the upcoming mission in November and holds the competition the following June.

Purdue’s Team

Purdue’s IEEE Student Branch founded the school’s initial five-member ROV team in 2008. The unit developed ROV Osprey (see Figure 1), which consisted of a basic aluminum bar frame, Gatorade bottles for buoyancy, bilge pump thrusters, and high-powered electronics used only on the surface to avoid water damage.

Graphic: Osprey, the remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) developed by the first Purdue University team in 2008 to compete in the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s international ROV competition.

Figure 1. Osprey, the remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) developed by the first Purdue University team in 2008 to compete in the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s international ROV competition.

This year’s team, led by captain Kyle Rakos, had 50 members from all STEM disciplines and consisted of mechanical, electrical, and software units. Six interdisciplinary project groups, with members from all three technical units, focused on specific ROV systems.

In addition to understanding the project’s technical aspects, the team also had to handle the administrative challenges that come with such a large undertaking. The group raised $32,000 for this year’s effort from sponsors such as Purdue departments and organizations, private companies, and government grants. The university provided laboratory space.

The team shared its knowledge and love of robotics with Purdue students and the community in general.

Technology Overview

This year, the Purdue team designed, built, and piloted ROV Cephalopod (see Figure 2), one of the smallest, lightest, and most technologically advanced vehicles in the school’s history.

Graphic: Cephalopod, the ROV developed by the 2017 Purdue University team, competed in this year’s Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s international ROV competition.

Figure 2. Cephalopod, the ROV developed by the 2017 Purdue University team, competed in this year’s Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s international ROV competition.

Mechanical unit

The team’s mechanical unit designed and assembled the frame from seven pieces of aircraft-grade aluminum, which it anodized with Purdue’s black and gold school colors. Unit members performed finite element analysis to optimize the aluminum’s strength-to-weight ratio before cutting the pieces with a waterjet. They mounted eight high-power thrusters made by Blue Robotics to this frame, giving the ROV a full six degrees of freedom of movement in the water. Three waterproof containers, each pressure-tested to a depth of 14 meters, protected the key electronics.

Two Participants’ Perspectives

Prospective members must apply to join the Purdue IEEE ROV Team, which participates each year in the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center’s international ROV competition.

Those who are accepted must balance the rigors of a Purdue education with this extracurricular activity to learn, have fun, and hopefully do well at the competition. Working with the team provides real-world experience and complements students’ formal education, enabling them to creatively apply their classroom knowledge in a dynamic, multidisciplinary environment.

Two of the 2017 Purdue team members provided their perspectives on the experience.

Ian Sibley

Overall, I loved the experience. I came to the team looking to learn more about robotics and was surprised to find out how simple it really was. I’m pleased to say that working with the Cephalopod code’s core parts was one of my favorite aspects of this school year.

We faced many challenges while developing Cephalopod. Because I was a central member of the software team, I got to deal with many of our software-related frustrations and spent long nights on several of them. Threading was a particular hurdle. However, the contagious positivity that everyone brought carried us through many issues.

I was new to the team, and I found it to be a very enabling environment. I found myself making significant contributions thanks to the team veterans’ coherent and simple explanations of important points. The veterans provided a community that was open and welcoming to anyone willing to put in the effort, and the whole team thrived because of it. It was great to go from being a new member to working as a core software member, even acting as the software lead for a month.

I will long remember the judges recognizing our team at the competition banquet for our two first-place awards. Personally, the achievement I’m most proud of is the scalable, flexible gamepad library I wrote this year. It was the first project in which I really got a chance to show what I could do, and it let me prove that I can handle bigger projects.

I gained a lot of skills and experiences, and I look forward to applying them in school, in future competitions, and throughout my career.

Katherine Mao

Because of the ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) competition, many doors have opened for me. I learned CAD much earlier than I would have through classes and at a far more comprehensive level. It’s unlikely that I’ll work on another such interdisciplinary project until my senior design project. The competition also gave me a chance to work on real engineering projects outside of class and to learn from older, more experienced team members. Listening to the upperclassmen’s discussions has motivated me to take advanced engineering classes.

Most importantly, the competition helped me get a position working on ROVs as part of the Johns Hopkins Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). The focus of my research is designing and building a pressure housing for batteries and power systems. I’ve been able to use the knowledge I gained through the ROV competition in my new position, and I’ve learned new skills at the REU that I can bring back to the Purdue team.

As a first-year student, I had wanted to participate on a robotics team. I attended the callout for prospective members because someone shoved a flyer into my hands on my way to class one day. Through my participation, I gained skills and met amazing people. I had a great experience with the team this year and look forward to what next year will bring.

Members placed nine mission-specific tools around the ROV. The most important is the multifunctional primary manipulator, which has four 3D-printed pincers usable in multiple configurations to grasp various types of items. For compact storage, the tools mount to the ROV via a custom-made quick-release bracket. The team’s use of 3D-printed components for the tools and some ROV components enabled rapid iteration and improvement. For example, members assembled the pincers in less than 24 hours, immediately before the event.

Electrical unit

This year, the electrical unit introduced a new ROV command-and-control architecture. The team previously used a dedicated STMicroelectronics STM32 embedded microcontroller—mounted on a custom circuit board—in this part of the system. This year, however, the team wanted the functionality of a dedicated OS with support for various libraries. It thus used a low-cost Raspberry Pi single-board computer that, unlike the STM32, readily supports a Linux-based OS. The Raspberry Pi’s speed and capabilities more than made up for the loss of the custom circuit board.

The team also changed its power-conversion system. MATE provides teams with 48 volts of power, which they must convert to a usable voltage level onboard the ROV. The Purdue group employed a modular, load-sharing design to convert the voltage more reliably and efficiently than in previous years. Members attached each power converter to its own circuit board and combined them using a power-distribution board. This enabled the system to share the load equally among all the power bricks and allowed members to easily remove individual bricks for testing if they discovered problems.

Software unit

Software unit members employed a new Linux-based architecture for its code. They used Raspberry Pi’s Debian-based Raspbian OS with a Python-based application to control the ROV’s electronics. They connected the ROV to the Raspberry Pi remotely while in the water, which let them change code while the vehicle was deployed, a particularly useful feature during development.

They used a client-server model. The Raspberry Pi acted as the webserver and a topside computer acted as the client, with the two communicating via WebSockets. The team controlled the ROV with an Xbox-style controller, which interfaced with the topside laptop via a JavaScript web application.

Mission Overview

After building the ROV and qualifying for the international competition, the team prepared for the event, which took place 23–25 June at Long Beach City College in California. The theme was “Port Cities of the Future.”

Each team’s vehicle had to complete four tasks that simulated real-world ROV operations. The missions included the construction of an underwater hyperloop, a transportation system in which pods travel through a sealed vacuum tube; the detection and sampling of contaminated sediment; the identification and marking of sunken, hazardous cargo containers; and the repair of a water-and-light entertainment display. These tasks required ROVs to turn valves, collect simulated sediment, manipulate rebar, identify signals, and more.

Each team also had to submit a technical document and a poster, and give an oral presentation. More than 600 teams competed in four classes, and 65 qualified for the international competition. Purdue’s team and 24 others competed in the highest-level Explorer Class.

International Competition Results

Participants in the international competition could make two attempts at completing all four tasks within 15 minutes. In Purdue’s first run, impatience led the team to draw too much power too quickly from the electrical system, forcing it into a safe mode that saved the hardware but ended the mission prematurely. In the second run, a single Ethernet connector wasn’t correctly tightened, which prevented communication with the ROV. Fixing this issue took 10 minutes, which meant the team didn’t score as well as its members had hoped.

The rest of their overall score came from their technical presentation and documentation, which judges from various fields evaluated. The judges said they were impressed by the team’s designs, especially the quick-release mounting mechanism, which they called very high quality. In the end, the team gained valuable real-world experience from these two parts of the competition.

The Purdue team members put a combined 7,000 work hours into ROV Cephalopod. The group placed eighth overall in the Explorer Class and won awards for the top presentation and technical report at that level (see Figure 3). A new member, Katherine Mao, won the Flying Fish Award for innovation and creativity in design—Purdue’s second consecutive year winning that prize. The team hopes to continue its success and turn it into a first-place finish next year in Seattle, Washington.

Graphic: Purdue University’s 2017 Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s international ROV competition team, with the two first-place team awards and the individual achievement award they received.

Figure 3. Purdue University’s 2017 Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s international ROV competition team, with the two first-place team awards and the individual achievement award they received.

Kyle Rakos graduated in 2017 from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. He was captain of the school’s ROV team from 2014 to 2017. Contact him at rakoskr6@gmail.com.
Alex Ruffino, a junior in Purdue University’s School of Mechanical Engineering, will be captain of the school’s ROV team for the 2017–2018 academic year. Contact him at aruffino@purdue.edu.
Charles Li is a senior in Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Contact him at li1735@purdue.edu.
Katherine Mao is a sophomore in Purdue University’s School of Mechanical Engineering. Contact her at mao86@purdue.edu.
Luke McBee is a senior in Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Contact him at lmcbee@purdue.edu.
Ryan McBee is a senior in Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Contact him at rmcbee@purdue.edu.
Matt Molo graduated in 2016 from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Contact him at matt@mattmolo.com.
Sanay Shah, a senior in Purdue University’s School of Industrial Engineering, was ROV team captain in the spring of 2016. Contact him at shah196@purdue.edu.
Ian Sibley is a junior in Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Contact him at isibley@purdue.edu.
Tyler Stagge is a sophomore in Purdue University’s School of Mechanical Engineering. Contact him at tstagge@purdue.edu.
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