Thursday, August 7, 2008

And in the end...

We got 14th! Which, let's face it, is not as good as last year, when we got 11th. Nor is it as good as we were hoping we'd do with our fancy hydrophones. But hey, it was quite the ride. Read more in this excerpt from the Dallas Morning News story about us:

We were estatic, however, that our friends at the University of Texas at Dallas ended up getting 2nd place. (And they only got 2nd place because they did exactly what the 1st place team did just a little slower.) Go UTD!

It's sad to know that we won't get another shot at the competition, since almost all of our team members are graduating. Many of the other teams encouraged us by saying, "Oh don't worry, you'll get it to work next year for sure." When we informed them that we wouldn't be returning, though, they had a new idea: "Well in that case...can we have your robot?"

She may have had a few bugs, but one thing's for sure. Seahorse III was and is the sexiest 'bot around.

If you've been following this blog, please leave a comment to tell the guys of the Robotics Club--once last time--just how they rock!

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Static judging on Friday left us in 14th place, so we got 14th choice of competition times on Saturday. We competed at 10:30 am, which put a time crunch on our preparations. Nevertheless, the guys prepared Friday night, got an early practice time (and Chris Pilcher got here at 6:15 am in order to sign up for it! Go Chris!), and then did more tests in the dolphin pool. They worked hard up until the very moment of the competition time, working to get the hydrophone task functioning.

Seahorse III drove through the gate easily and then headed straight toward the pinger. It was obvious that the robot was locked on to the pinger correctly, and we all held our breath as it drove closer and closer. About halfway there, though, it suddenly slowed to a stop. Seahorse III rotated back and forth, still seemingly locked on to the pinger, but not moving forward. Unfortunately, then, our time ran out, and it was apparent that we would not be able to move forward to the Finals.

Now the pressure is off, and our team is enjoying watching the rest of the competition play out. We've made some friends at other universities, and we'll be cheering them on.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Isopropyl Alcohol Fixes Everything

This competition is starting to feel a bit more intense. Since we were the third team to pre-qualify by driving through the gate yesterday, we got third choice of competition times today. We chose 12 o'clock noon to give ourselves to time to prepare before and after.

After some hard decision-making, we decided to eschew the vision events in favor of concentrating on the hydrophones and detecting the pinger. We also decided to toss the floating antenna that attached to our sub with a long, waterproof cable. Instead, we made a last-minute trip to Home Depot for a long, indoor antenna that would attach directly to the sub. It worked like a charm.

Thirty minutes before our competition time, we had a moment of panic when the sub's right motor wouldn't turn on (unless you poked it). Also, the sub was leaking just a tad. The guys quickly took the sub apart and discovered that the motor drivers needed to be switched. The leaking was taken care of with a few squirts of isopropyl alcohol and a liberal application of a toothbrush. (Over the course of this competition, I've come to the realization that isopropyl alcohol (IPA) will fix just about anything. Hydrophones not working? Clean the boards with IPA. Motors not working? Clean the boards with IPA. Software error? Re-code and then clean everything with IPA for good measure.)

We rushed up to the competition dock at the last possible minute, where Dave, the man in charge, grinned and tapped his watch. "12:14." (We had until 12:15.) However, we were surprised to find out that the rules of the pinger were different than we though. One of two pingers (with two different frequencies) is turned on, and the robot is supposed to find the pinger, no matter which frequency is going. We thought that at the beginning of the run, Dave would reveal the frequency of the pinger. Oops. Unsure that we could complete the hydrophone task under these new conditions, we elected to do only the simplest task of all: driving through the gate. We managed it easily, twice. Of course, only the last run counts towards points.

Now the guys are focusing on making the hydrophones work under the new conditions, a task that they believe is entirely possible.

Next up on the schedule is a practice run at 2:30 and static judging shortly thereafter. In static judging, the judges will come by the booth and examine our sub while the guys explain the ins and outs of its design and technology. This judging determines who gets first choice of competition times tomorrow, so we're all planning to be at our most charming, witty, and knowledgeable when the judges come by.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

It works!

It's works and works and works. It drove around the small dolphin pool and was able to locate the pinger. Now the guys are working on color recognition with a red silicon pot holder.

In other news, I have acquired team "uniforms" for Friday's competition, as required. They consist of five navy t-shirts of indifferent quality. But they only cost $20!

Tonight will almost certainly be spent in the hotel pool with some Chinese takout. It looks to be a long next couple of days (if 14 hour days weren't already enough!).

Minor Setback...

Our sub had a leak during a practice run and the electronics compartment was flooded.

But, the guys took everything apart and cleaned all the boards with alcohol and re-soldered a couple things and put it all back together, and now they're about to throw it in the pool to make sure it works. I'm crossing my fingers and knocking on wood.

First Day of Competition

Yesterday was the first day of competition. We arrived at 7:00 am to unload our equipment and set up our booth. Each team has a tent with a couple of tables; these tents circle the perimeter of the TRANSDEC (that’s what the facility is called) and surround the pool. “Pool” isn’t quite an accurate word, though; this thing is closer to a big pond. Our booth is wedged beside the University of Marlyand, which has—lets’ count them—13 team members skittering around. They are busy, busy bees. On our other side is Amador Valley High School Robotics Club. We’re pretty impressed that a bunch of high schoolers are competing alongside undergraduate and graduate students. The kind of skills needed to compete here aren’t exactly taught in the average high school. Kudos to them.

We found ourselves making a madcap trip to Home Depot when we suddenly started missing the practice crate that Chris constructed back in Texas. Lots of PVC pipe, orange electrical tape, and one hour later, we had ourselves an orange crate to practice finding and picking up.

Down to the nitty-gritty: we recalibrated the PIDs for the depth sensor. This means that in the morning, Seahorse was listing back and forth, fluttering in the water, but once we recalibrated it, it became much more stable. We also acquired the correct color value for the buoy and the safe, and we did acquisition and tracking on those things. (Meaning that we found out the exact color of the buoy and were able to find them in the water.) Lastly we listened for actual pinger data on the real hydrophones and adjusted our robot to the competition frequencies.

We had three practice times yesterday. We qualified for the competition on the very first try by driving through an underwater gate. These practices were more than just practice, though. Our performances then determine who gets to choose their competition times first.

And that was yesterday. Now let’s see about today.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


This morning was spent at various hardware and supply stores: Home Depot, Harbor Freight, West Marine. This afternoon and evening will be spent making the kill switch work.

Orientation involved lots of powerpoint presentations and talking. It took about two hours, but I can sum up the important points pretty quickly:

  • We'll be on a naval base, so we shouldn't do anything illegal or dangerous or stupid, because that would end very badly for us.

  • The Navy uses dolphins and sea lions to do stuff and find things! Super cool!

  • We were given the password for the wireless internet. Which we need to update our blog.

  • They don't yet know what the frequency of the pinger is. Which is really the only thing we wanted to know.

We went to dinner, where Mike mistook the salmon on our pizza for tomatoes and Amanda attempted to explain the differences between humanism, posthumanism, and postmodernism. The Mai Tai she drank made this all quite difficult.

In other news, congratulations go out to Mike and his wife, who are expecting a baby this December.