Feb. 23, 2010

CU's first-prize, student-built sub takes dip in Teagle pool

The champion being showcased in Teagle pool Feb. 21 wasn't your typical athlete. It was an award-winning robotic submarine created by a group of engineering students.

In a public demonstration that doubled as a celebration, the Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Team (CUAUV) presented its robot Nova before an audience of students, team advisers and others. The team won first place at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) competition last July -- the first team in six years to build a robot able to complete the entire competition course.

At the showcase, the audience watched as Nova proceeded through a mock competition course in Teagle pool, which included such tasks as following an underwater pipeline, avoiding obstacles, firing torpedoes and dropping markers. Screen projectors set up in front of the bleachers played a slide show of pictures, as well as a video recording from the point of view of the robot underwater. As an autonomous machine, the robot controls all of its own actions and decisions.

"That's what sets Nova apart -- it's smart enough to be able to adapt to slightly different environments," explained team leader Erin Fischell '10, a mechanical engineering major. "It does decision making on where it wants to go and what it wants to do based on visual input, based on acoustics -- things like that."

Fischell has been on the team since her freshman year and has served as team leader for the past two years.

"I've learned really what it is to be an engineer. In classes you get a small piece of a small project that has maybe one or two or three parts. On this team we're working on a project that has thousands and thousands of parts," Fischell said.

Many CUAUV members credit the hands-on experience as a reason for joining the team.

"You learn stuff in your classes, and then you get to actually apply it here, and you get to see the results," said Christos Sideris '13, a freshman mechanical engineering student.

Brian Mittereder '11, also a mechanical engineering major, said that CUAUV was a large part of the reason why he decided to attend Cornell. As the leader of the mechanical team as well as leader for the actuator sub-team, which builds the working parts of the sub such as the torpedo launchers, he's responsible for coordinating the mechanical team's activities.

CUAUV also offers a business management and communications component for engineering students seeking a less technical experience. Tracy Cheung '10, who studies biological engineering, is leader of the public relations team and was responsible for organizing the Teagle pool demonstration.

The team is already busy building their new robot (which they named Tachyon, after the subatomic particle that travels faster than the speed of light) for this year's competition, July 13-18 in San Diego. They plan to get Tachyon in the water to begin testing at the beginning of April.

Kristen Tauer '10 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.