UWE Bristol Robotics students enter international underwater vehicle contest

July 2, 2012

A pioneering underwater robot designed and created by UWE Bristol Robotics students has been entered for a prestigious international engineering competition.

It is the third time that a team from the university has taken part in the Student Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Challenge Europe (SAUC-E), which challenges the next generation of engineers to design and build an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) and then perform realistic missions in an underwater environment.

The event takes place at La Spezia, Italy, later this month. UWE Bristol has performed brilliantly against teams from some of Europe’s most prestigious universities – last year the UWE team was awarded the Innovation prize.

The event is designed to encourage young engineers and scientists to think about underwater technology and its future possibilities, as well as fostering interest in innovation and technology, and encouraging careers in the field. This year the newly-designed AUV has been built on a budget using recycled common household appliances such as cameras from a PS3.

Gareth Griffiths, a Masters by Research student at UWE Bristol based at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), is leading the team under the supervision of associate professor in robotics Dr Sanja Dogramadzi.

Gareth said: “AUVs are used primarily for defence purposes such as mine detection, but we are also investigating other applications like cleaning base structures for sea wind farms or inspection of oil rigs.

“As AUVs are frequently required to operate in environments such as murky deep waters, we need to equip them with tracking and vision sensors that enable safe but accurate movement.

“This year we are focusing on making the vehicle as lightweight as possible with an ability to localise in its environment. We have to work to a mission specification set by the competition organisers. We will be including depth sensors, compass, sonar, a sound velocity profiler – which measures the velocity of sound and water and help calibrate the sonar for mapping an area – and two cameras. Wherever possible we have recycled materials to ensure that we are working to a sustainable agenda.

“A key part of the challenge is to build an AUV that will be robust enough to cope with a fairly hostile environment yet incorporating sophisticated equipment in a watertight and lightweight encasement.”

The involvement in the competition has proved very beneficial to students who have participated in previous years. Tom Rooney, who led last year's team, is now working on a PhD in underwater robotics at the BRL and another team member, Sam Hughes, has secured a sandwich year placement at SAAB SeaEye, a world-leading Remotely Operated Vehicle company.

Dr Drogramadzi said: “This competition stretches students and gives a practical focus outside of their degree programme that allows them to apply their learning. The competition also gives an overview of the international expertise in a specialist area and to hone their skills and expand horizons. Working closely with each other also develops students’ team skills and puts them in challenging situations that have to be resolved quickly and efficiently."

SAUC-E is to be held at La Spezia in Italy at the NATO Undersea Research Centre (NURC) from July 6 to 13. The centre enables the competition participants to test out their robots in real life ocean conditions (limited visibility and salty water) in a sheltered harbour area.

The team have a blog www.uwesub.com and will be posting updates throughout preparation and during the competition.

Sponsorship has been secured from Harwin and the BMT group. Harwin is a manufacturer of high reliability and industry standard interconnects and associated PCB hardware. Bath-based BMT is the leading international design, engineering and risk management consultancy offering services to the defence, energy, environment and transport sectors. The company recently launched the SHOAL project which deploys robotic fish in Gijon Harbour, Spain, to detect pollution.

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