FORT LAUDERDALE – After taking their two-person team to Georgia Tech last year and placing second overall at the SeaPerch Underwater Robotics Nationals, two Fleming Island High students now plan to …
FORT LAUDERDALE – After taking their two-person team to Georgia Tech last year and placing second overall at the SeaPerch Underwater Robotics Nationals, two Fleming Island High students now plan to tackle the University of Massachusetts and a third shot at a national championship.
“We keep improving and researching better ways to achieve the tasks needed to succeed in the SeaPerch competitions,” said Austin Hughes, 15, a freshman, who teamed up with sophomore Jordan Detwiler for a second-place national finish last year at Georgia Tech. “The three pieces of the competition are pretty intense, but Jordan and I have a lot of experience in all three and we practice a lot. We averaged high enough to place second overall last year.”
The SeaPerch competition idea is a three-part competition that teaches students how to research, build and compete using underwater remotely operated vehicles or ROVs. Alternatively, it’s described as an “innovative underwater robotics program.”
“The settings of the competition include an obstacle course for speed, a puzzle course that measures dexterity of the operator and a research notebook which details the team’s preparations,” Detwiler said. “A team gets points for each based on execution in the competition and there is an overall competition award.”
At the 2018 Marine Industries Cares Foundation SeaPerch Qualifier, held March 10 in Fort Lauderdale, Detwiler and Hughes, under the team name of Hetwiler Halibuts, won in all three aspects to take home three small trophies. They also won the overall points total to take home one more huge trophy and a trip to the national competition.
To show perspective, in the puzzle course Detwiler used a remote module to control a tethered underwater ROV to move nine objects from one platform to another.
“The competition allows for up to 15 minutes to complete the task,” said Detwiler, who operated the remote control of the ROV while Hughes directed the tether and offered obstacle advise. “We did ours in three minutes and 13 seconds and put all of our puzzle pieces on the hardest part of the course. It was amazingly intense.”
Hughes said the time limit leaves the task little room for error.
“The tasks we can practice at home, the speed is what is the variable,” Hughes said.
For Hughes, the speed course entails operating the ROV through five underwater rings buoyed to the pool floor at different heights and angles. ROVs must travel from one side of the pool, approximately 30 feet, through each of the rings, then surface, turn around and return through the same rings while not tangling the remote control’s tether.
“My job is to direct the ROV according to my own visibility and also with Jordan’s coaching as it pertains to the speed and direction of the cable to make the return easier,” Hughes said. “We practice in my uncle’s pool in Keystone Heights most of the time.”
Hughes ran his ROV through the course in an amazing 34 seconds to dominate the field of 10 high school teams and 10 junior high teams.
“Last year, we beat the course record of 37 seconds in practice, but not in competition, but this year we beat the record with our 34 seconds in competition,” Hughes said. “Jordan ran a 3:04 later in the same day, but it did not count as a record. We had already qualified for the national competition, but the times were still there.”
The nationals will be held June 2 in Massachusetts and Hughes expects that practices will become even more intense.
“We used the same ROV for the qualifier, but it has pretty much maxed out its use at this level,” said Hughes. “From now until nationals, we will have a whole new design.”
Hughes noted that there are larger, more intense levels of robotics competitions above and below the water’s surface, but he and Detwiler’s objective is to take another four-trophy win at the national level.
“We go in with just the two of us having done all the preparation, building and execution,” Hughes said. “We would like to clean sweep this competition at the national level then move up.”
For Jim Hughes, Austin’s father and chief logistics and operations executive; meaning driver and supplies buyer for Home Depot, and Teri Briggs, Jordan’s mother and chief driver until recently when Jordan received her driver’s license, the competition seems to be easier from the duo’s initial walk in, but immense preparation is the key.
“The key to their success is their confidence and that comes from hours of practice and competition against the clock,” said Jim Hughes. “Their dedication to the idea of being the best at this part of their life is pretty impressive. When they walk in to the pool area, they know they have to bring their ‘A’ game because they are recognized from their successes.”