An Autonomous Boat, A Blue Buoy and A Rope

Additional images

By Susan Andrews
August 22, 2013

Clear skies, a gentle wind and four electrical and computer engineering students watched hopefully as their battery-powered autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) wound through a lake in a remote area of Virginia Beach, Va. The four Bradley students were on a mission to complete an aquatic obstacle course in the 2013 International RoboBoat Competition where they maneuvered around 10 sets of red and green buoys and avoided two yellow buoys.

The competition includes an obstacle course that once successfully navigated advances teams to five difficult challenge stations. “Team Bradley was the only team to successfully compete in three of these challenges during the week.” said Nick Schmidt, assistant lab director at Bradley.

“If we repeated the performance of our qualifying run the day before, we would have won,” Steve Blass ’13 said. Blass, now pursuing his master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon, along with his classmates spent untold hours in Bradley labs building the one-of-a-kind wood and plastic boat.

The competition’s criteria for the unmanned ASV is composed of 13 factors, including autonomy in which all decisions must be taken onboard, 30-minute buoyancy in the water, and communication in that it cannot send or receive instruction while in the autonomous mode.

According to Zack Knoll ‘13, now beginning his master’s degree program at the University of Virginia, “We thought we had anticipated all that could go wrong in the course and programmed the boat’s onboard computer with all the necessary failsafe commands.” However, unbeknownst to the team, a blue buoy (circled in the above photo) had drifted from its intended location, which was at the end of the channel.

“The blue buoy was repositioned so that it could not be seen by our boat’s camera, leading the boat downrange. Due to lack of viewable buoys, the boat switched to challenge mode and headed for the correct GPS coordinate and unfortunately got stuck on a rope,” Knoll explained. Sadly, game over.

The team’s technical achievement and high performance throughout the trial runs did not go unnoticed by the competition’s judges and they earned a fifth place award. This was the first fifth place award ever given in this competition as the judges felt strongly about the technical superiority of Bradley’s autonomous boat.

Blass programmed the basic shell or architecture that drove the main control device while Knoll focused on hardware fabrication in addition to writing substantial portions of the final software. The two seniors were assisted by junior Bradley Lan and sophomore Dan Van de Water. Blass and Knoll completed their two-semester senior capstone requirement with this project. They also wrote about their valuable experience in their personal statements for graduate school admission.

 “These talented students did outstanding work on this project,” Schmidt said. “They produced a technically sound boat at a fraction of the cost of some of the other teams from highly competitive schools.”

The team superseded standard classroom theory and laboratory work to design all the sub-systems associated with the robotic boat project. Blass said, “The past 10 months have been exhausting, but the experience and knowledge we have gained cannot really be measured. The skills we have accumulated will be a huge advantage for us moving forward in our careers.

“We learned quite a bit throughout the two-year building design process from concept to final product,” Blass said, “including that you can never have anything 100 percent tested.”

The competition was webcast. Click here to see the competition course through the lens of Bradley’s autonomous boat camera.