LINCOLN CITY — After 100 hours of designing, building and tweaking an underwater robot, four students from Taft High School stood eager to show a panel of judges just what their remotely operated vehicle could do.
The TROVE (Taft Remotely Operated Vehicle Exploration) team had to prove that their robot could simulate a series of real-world tasks that ROVs perform at ports around the world — retrieving sediment samples, collecting shellfish, and repairing underwater technology.
In all, the TROVE bot had to complete 24 different challenges to win the Oregon Regional MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) Competition. And the team's controller, captain Nathan Kay, only had 15 minutes to pull it off.
The bot itself was high-tech but also patched together with some scrappy problem-solving. The frame was created by slicing the perimeter of a kitchen cutting board. Its motors were protected with a mesh usually used to guard gutters, and the controller looked like something snagged from a video game.
The final product was strong, buoyant and easy to navigate, said TROVE member William Irvin, flanked by teammates Cody Knott and Kameron Kessler.
"It doesn't sink straight to the bottom. You can kind of control it; it's balanced. And you don't have to have as much thrust going upwards," Irvin said before depositing the robot underwater at the Lincoln City Community Center Pool on Saturday, April 29.
But even with months of preparation, the TROVE bot just barely fell short.
They were thwarted by the tether, Kay said glumly. It all came down to a rope not quite long enough to let the ROV reach its underwater mission.
But not all was lost. The team fine-tuned their approach before heading back in the pool for round two, figuring how best to pick up points despite the handicap of their tether.
That's all part of the competition, said Oregon Regional MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) Coordinator Tracy Crews.
"We have scoring rubrics, and each of the tasks has a certain point value assigned to it. Those that are more difficult have higher values," Crews explained. "They have to come up with their own strategy, and that's actually part of it. Looking at everything that has to be done, what's going to be easiest, quickest point?"
The robots at MATE might resemble toys, but the competition is a serious undertaking that over the last 17 years has grown exponentially in popularity from elementary schools to universities.
Saturday's competition was one of 30 around the world and drew more than 200 students on 31 teams from schools across the state, Crews said. The winners of the two most advanced categories, Ranger and Explorer, will go on to represent Oregon at the international competition in Long Beach, Calif. June 23-25.
A Newport High School team, the Finnovators, won regionals in the Ranger class for the second year in a row. The eight-person team took the top honor despite the fact that the school has no robotics class — it's just an afterschool club, said NHS robotics mentor Liz Fox.
The "Finnobot" cost about $1,000 to build and features four front-to-back motors, and underwater camera, and pneumatic-based propulsion.
"They're actually pretty real-world," Fox told the News-Times before the competition.
A team from Aloha's Life Christian School, Laveer Enterprise, won the intermediate Navigator class, and Beaverton's Valor Tech from Valor Christian School International took the entry-level Scout class. There were no regional entries in the Explorer category, which usually consists of college-level teams.
Robotics provides a practical education in science, technology, engineering, and math. When kids build robots, Crews said, they're tapping into every facet of STEM.
"They have to research the science to find out what the problem is," Crews said.
"They then have to figure out which technology they're going to develop to address the problem. They have to engineer their ROV. And then the math — there's lots of math in it. When you're building something, and you're learning about forces and weights."
MATE creates a curriculum for robotics clubs and classes, sending each team their tasks ahead of time so the students can build their entries accordingly. This year, the teams had to complete the kind of missions that the Port of Long Beach actually needs.
"Each year, the international competition rotates around," Crews said. "They look at how ROVs are being used in that local area, and that's how they come up with all the mission tasks."
She called the regional competition a "massive undertaking," including more than 60 volunteers from Oregon State University, Hatfield Marine Science Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Sexton Corporation, Marine Technology Society, and more.
In addition to the underwater trials, each team also put together a poster and presentation describing their robot and marketing the product.
"It's a bunch of folks that use ROVs in their work, so the kids get to interact with them," Crews said. "It gives them a whole real-world context to how the ROVs are being used."
Contact reporter Calley Hair at 541-265-8571 ext. 211 or [email protected]