Let the ROV competitions begin

ALPENA -The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary was buzzing with activity Friday as 59 teams from around the world competed in the 2014 Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) International Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition. Tank missions started Friday morning, and the seven stations of the 600,000 gallon tank were occupied by laptops, machinery, wires and team members, scrambling to set up their underwater robots and perform as many missions as possible before time ran out.

“This is the 13th annual competition and its our biggest one ever,” Jill Zande, MATE Associate Director, Co-Principal Investigator and Competition Coordinator said. “There are probably 850 to 900 people here. The tank is fantastic, and the (Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary) and all the community partners did a wonderful job getting this ready. The facility has been wonderful and the staff is fantastic.”

Missions for the competition were based on jobs the sanctuary performs on a regular basis, including shipwreck preservation and identification, water and soil sampling and Great Lakes conservation. The outdoor tank gave teams a feel for performing tasks in a real world envrionment with its slight current, flat bottom and exposure to the elements.

“The tank is a very different environment for us,” Zande said. “It’s circular, it has a little bit of a slope, so it is definitely probably one of the more real-world venues that we’ve had. The missions are very tough this year.”

In order to prepare the tank for the competition, a beautiful deck was built around two thirds of it to accomodate seven team stations and a diver area. Teams started arriving in Alpena before registration Wednesday, and will be in the area through Saturday, with some electing to stay longer and explore Alpena.

“The community has really come together to support this. There are teams that don’t have transportation and the community has been taking care of them and taking them where they need to go,” Zande said. “Things are good. We bring in volunteers from all around the world representing different organizations and marine related companies, so it’s really a great opportunity for the town and sanctuary to showcase what you have here.”

The Kaimana Enterprises team from Hawaii said they felt that they did well on their first mission as part of the Ranger class, despite the challenges of being outdoors.

“We accomplished almost all of our missions that we wanted to do,” Eric Schlitzkus said. “The missions are very interesting and challenging this year. We had to think of all types of ideas to help accomplish these missions and it has helped us with our engineering skills a lot. I love this country setting and it’s very relaxing and beautiful here.”

Team Screwdrivers from Mumbai, India had just finished their engineering evaluation for the Explorer class, and said it went very well. The team then had to go through a safety inspection and get a passing card to continue on to the mission portion of the competition.

“We are really positive on everything and things have gone really smoothly,” team member Dhairya said. “We hope we score good points. This is the first time for our entire team. We like the entire setup and mixing with different teams and different cultures. We love this small town.”

The University of Massachusets- Dartmuth team had some minor setbacks during their first mission, but were working them out Friday night in hopes of performing better on their second attempt Saturday morning.

“When we were practicing everything was all set, but we got here and there was a power surge and it blew something on our robot,” Brandon MacDonald said. “We have a bunch of spares, so we’re switching things out and adding safety protocols so they don’t blow next time.”

MacDonald said he liked this venue much better than the last venue he attended for the competition in Orlando, Fla.

“Everyone is really friendly here and pretty helpful,” he said.

The Explorer team Special ROV Service from Aberdeen, Scotland also ran into some trouble on their testing, and burnt out the low voltage side of their system. This took out their cameras, manipulator and lights, and they had to completely rebuild the low-voltage side of the system.

“We found some secuirty cameras from Walmart and took them apart and put inside, and spent all of (Thursday) and all of (Friday) morning repairing it,” Matthew Head said. “We were happy to get it back running. We haven’t gotten the bouyancy quite right yet, but we’re happy to be back running. We’re going to try to get a better score on the next run.”

Missions continue today from 9 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. in the tank behind the sanctuary, and everyone is invited to watch these teams race the clock to perform their missions. There is a live stream of the competition with commentary at www.marinetech.org available for viewers who are not able to attend the competition, or would like to keep up with their favorite team.

Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at ngrulke@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.