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Students construct robots to battle in underwater rodeo (Video)

By KBell
Feb. 3, 2012 at 7:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 2, 2012 at 8:03 p.m.

Alexander Valdes claps with excitement as both his team's and the opposing team's SeaPerches compete to recover the second-to-last weight resting on the floor of a pool in Victoria. Carson Tharp scouts his own team's position from the diving board. Valdes and a few classmates worked to build and then compete in a few challenges Friday using remote operated vehicles that can maneuver in water.

Their mission was daunting: rescue survivors trapped inside a wrecked plane that has sunk in the Bermuda Triangle.

But Trinity Episcopal middle schoolers accepted the challenge with gusto. This was, after all, the culmination of months of training.

In this instance, the ocean floor was a backyard pool in downtown Victoria. The plane, a bucket held down by weights. And the life-saving apparatus was a remotely operated vehicle assembled by teenage hands.

"Whenever I told my friend we were building underwater robots at school, he said, 'Yeah, you're lying,'" said Jonas Bubela, one of the sixth-grade robot engineers.

The adventure was real after all. Trinity Episcopal middle schoolers have joined only seven schools in Texas taking part in the Navy-sponsored program Sea Perch.

The program offers a curriculum developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which guides kids along every aspect of creating the underwater robots.

Students soldered and sawed, programmed and assembled their vehicles, whose three motors were powered by a 12-volt battery. The rest of the contraption was just some PVC pipe, zip ties and other inexpensive materials.

"We learned some construction fundamentals, some naval design and a little bit about teamwork," said Todd Valdes, a parent who works with the Office of Naval Research and sponsored the program at Trinity.

On Friday, the experience came to a head as two teams battled their robots in an underwater rodeo.

The first challenge the two teams faced involved dropping buoyant pool toys inside a bucket in order to raise it to the surface and retrieve its "passengers."

Second up, they had to plug a simulated oil spill by dropping a cap on some PVC pipe. And finally, the students had to retrieve scattered treasure - magnets at the bottom of the pool.

"I've learned that it is a lot safer to use robots instead of people in things like oil spills," said Seth Peña, 12. "Teamwork is a big aspect of this, too. If you're just standing there yelling at someone, you can't get anywhere."

That was difficult, understandably, in such a high-intensity rescue situation. While one pilot on each team maneuvered the robot with a hand control, other team members surrounded the pool, belting out commands in the hopes of beating their classmates.

But after losing the first competition, one team adjusted its strategy to take the next win.

"We got rid of a weight, and we actually had people talking to each other," eighth-grader Carson Tharp said.

The two teams will have a few more months to perfect their skills and to tweak their robots before prime-time: the national competition in Virginia in April.



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