SAN DIEGO — Facing an exodus of institutional brain power as baby-boomer scientists retire, the Navy is turning to a younger pool of talent for its underwater robotics program.
As part of the effort, college students were recently invited to build robots that could perform a series of tasks without human control in a 38-foot-deep research pool. The culmination, last weekend’s International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition, was a sink-or-swim contest.
The robots were required to swim through a gate, find and dock with a flashing light box, locate and tag a cracked pipeline, then home in on an acoustic beacon and resurface in a designated recovery zone. The top prize was $7,000 and serious bragging rights.
In the nine-year history of the event, about 14 competitors have been recruited by the Navy or by private firms as part of the next generation of engineers who make robots for the military, said Tom Curtin, program manager of the Office of Naval Research.
“Department of Defense-wide, there are a lot of retirement-eligible people and they represent a strong talent and expertise base,” said Ed Budzyna of the Navy’s Space and Warfare Systems Center San Diego. “They are trying to offset that by bringing in new talent, and the Navy is definitely part of that.”
The deployment of unmanned aircraft and explosives-clearing robots in Iraq and Afghanistan has boosted spending in military robotics, said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which organized the competition with the Office of Naval Research.
Young engineers “could go out and get more lucrative positions doing something probably far less fun, but right now the most development and the majority of funding and research that is going into this type of technology is all being done within the military,” Davidson said.
A total of 21 teams competed in this year’s event, with the University of Florida’s robot, named the SubjuGator, winning the contest for the second year straight.
Florida’s 12-man team — contest participants were overwhelmingly male — was sponsored by defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., with backing coming from other companies including Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. Other defense companies, like Northrop Grumman Corp., sponsored the contest and robot manufacturer Applied Research Associates Inc. had a stall at the event in the hopes of luring new talent.
Matthew Koenn, who wrote the computer code that enabled the SubjuGator to “see” the pool floor, said the robot’s 35-pound weight made it faster and more maneuverable than others that were closer to the competition’s maximum of 140 pounds.
Most robots in this year’s competition were cylindrical or torpedo-shaped. Duke University, which finished second, chose a circular design that resembled a flying saucer. Brian Hilgerford, 22, a Duke graduate, said the shape enabled the machine to move sharply in any direction, unlike the torpedo-shaped robots, which must turn in a wide circle.
The robots all came with an array of thrusters, external sensors, cameras and droppers.
Teams from as far as India and Japan competed. The youngest were 14 years old.
Some machines performed according to plan; others seemed to have a mind of their own. Instead of swimming through a clearly marked gate, Cornell University’s underwater robot, named Seamonkey, veered hard to the right and headed toward the edge of the pool. It finished seventh.
It was unclear if the Navy had much recruiting success. Cornell’s Greg Meess, 19, was excited about the Navy’s expertise in robotics. But, like others interviewed, he had reservations about working for the military.
“I would definitely consider it,” he said. “There’s a lot of peaceful applications, like a lot of the autonomous elements of this are good for finding mines in harbors.”