• Two different groups of students unveil their underwater robots.
By Naomi Klouda
Friday morning a robot combs the swimming pool bottom at Homer High School, moving left or right, up or down, by a series of simple levers operated by a 15-year-old teen.
The robot’s eye is a digital camera connected to a television screen. It fits in a lap-top sized case. The screen shows the Rover on a mission to collect a ring from the bottom of the pool.
“We assembled two of these Remote Operating Vehicles or Rovers, that will be at Peterson Bay for future education,” sophomore Trevor Flynn explains. “They’ll be used so students can look underwater and see what’s living in Peterson Bay.”
Flynn, Thomas Vanek, 15, and Mark Nagle, 17, are the high school trio of brilliant minds who worked with engineer Pete Fineo the past five weeks to create the two underwater robots from kits called ROV-In-A Box. The Center for Alaska Coastal Studies provided the kits, but the crew quickly realized they would need to make modifications to allow for Alaska conditions.
“The kits are usually for high school competition, meant to last two or three hours. We are hoping to get a year out of these,” Flynn said. “I’m not sure how often they will be used, but they will be fairly heavily used for a year.”
The cube frame needed to be stronger, picture two frames 12 by 12, one on top the other separated by three-inch piping to hold the frames apart. This forms the structure, with three bilge pump motors mounted between the two frames. One motor raises or lowers the ROV; the other two move it to the left or right.
Each ROV is tethered to a battery powered unit or brain center and the hand-held remote control box. The umbilical-like cable contains a group of cords that carry electrical power, video and data signals back and forth between the operator and the ROV.
Fineo’s group added a second 12 volt battery to the original kit and the ability to switch with a control of the lever from 12 to 24 volt to double the power.
“This has a lot more power, its more stronger and more sturdy,” Flynn said.
After two hours of use in the Homer pool, a red light warned of losing power. “That’s good to know,” Fineo said. “We’ve been using it how long now, and the battery is just now going down.”
The project, coordinated with high school shop teacher Cameron Wyatt and the CACS coordinator, Jenni Medley, depended on the engineering of Fineo and the three students. Wyatt gave the shop space and after-school time, while Medley helped the students understand the robot’s real work application. Fineo, the retired Navy engineer, showed them how to put it all together.
“He showed us how the wiring would work and then we designed it and put it in,” Flynn said.
The end result: a real ROV, ready for students’ hands guiding the levers as it opens underwater vistas they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.
“This is a budding project that has been evolving over the last few years with more sophisticated engineering,” Medley explained. After a test in the harbor, the robots go to work soon at Peterson Bay. The facility is operated by the Alaska Center for Coastal Studies. Soon 30 different classes will rotate in and out for three-day visits in the next six weeks. The veritable science factory has become a learning tradition for 4th and 5th graders to gain hands on marine ecology. In this case, they will see what the robot finds on the protective bay floor. The students come from across the Kenai Peninsula.
“When they look into tidal pools, (marine life) is usually deflated and on the surface. This allows them to see underneath the water for bio diversity counts,” Medley said. Using robots to take inventory of the marine diversity is an attempt to stay up-to-date with ocean technology and current research.
Department of Fish and Game biologists use ROV’s in rock fish survey counts. Imagine the robots walking the seabed floor, navigating the currents, Kasistna Lab Director Kris Holdereid said.
“The currents are big. The ROV’s need to be turbo charged and maneuver tightly. It has to be controlled carefully,” Holdereid said. “This (ROV) operates on the same principle.”
Another application is the inspection of oil rigs. The ROV’s can save divers time by identifying erosion or other factors that predict future problems on the rigs.
The power switch allows for fast or slow movement by shifting a lever from 12 to 24 volt battery power.
“You don’t want it moving by too fast or you won’t be able to see anything,” Nagle points out.
These ROV’s are cube shaped frames with buoyancy features symmetrically placed to keep it evenly afloat. Foam blocks are packaged in black electrical tape. Three four-inch motors from bilge pumps are mounted between the frames. Two move it forward and backwards. One moves it up and down.
Friday’s work in the swimming pool was a chance to see if the ROV functioned properly. Presenting them to the ACCS.
“Everything worked well, other than modifications to the buoyancy design today,” Flynn said. “Every body though it was rally cool. The woman from NOAA (Kris Holdereid) thought they were great. We weren’t quite sure what everyone would think.”
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