BOZEMAN — When four Montana State University undergraduates landed in Maryland for an international competition this summer, they got off to a rocky start when they discovered their robotic submarine had been damaged in transit from Bozeman, necessitating a trip to the hardware store to buy screwdrivers and materials to fix it.

That setback made it all the more exciting when the autonomous craft — pre-programmed to navigate an obstacle course in a swimming pool — completed a 720-degree spin as it passed through a gate, propelling the MSU team to a top semifinals finish among 39 teams from around the U.S. and 13 other countries.

“It was the style points that bumped us into 12th place,” said Isaac Schmidt, a senior from Missoula who is majoring in computer science.

At the 25th annual RoboSub Competition hosted by the University of Maryland from July 27 to Aug. 2, the team of nine students from a wide range of majors in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering wrapped up the work they had done to modify and program the robot, which members of MSU’s Robocats club have built and rebuilt over the years. This year’s craft is roughly 3 feet long, weighs 80 pounds and has eight thrusters positioned around its blue frame.

"It was a heavy year on the maintenance side, with some leaks and electrical problems to fix," said Schmidt, who joined the club as a sophomore. "It’s fun to have a robust challenge. A lot of pieces need to come together – that's what makes it exciting.”

For club adviser Brad Whitaker, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the competition was an occasion to celebrate all the effort the students put into tackling a complex, multi-disciplinary design challenge that mimics how professional engineering works.

"This club is entirely student-led and is a great opportunity for students to work on an exciting, real-world project outside of their classwork,” Whitaker said. “They can get involved as soon as they come to MSU and contribute according to their abilities and interests.”

Kruize Christensen, a senior from the small town of Fairfield west of Great Falls, joined the RoboCats as a freshman and found his niche running the club’s website and documenting design decisions as well as helping to program the computer that controls the submarine.

“You can decide what you want to work on, and it’s a chance to see a lot of different things in action,” said Christensen, a computer science major. At the competition, "it was pretty neat to see all the different ways people solved the same challenge. We have a lot of ideas for improving the design in the future.”

For months the team worked to integrate a system of cameras and sensors combined with computer code that can issue on-the-fly navigation commands based on the submarine’s surroundings — a project the team started a couple years ago. When the students turned their attention to more pressing mechanical issues, they resorted to pre-programming the sub’s route for the underwater course, leaving the computing challenge for next year’s team.

“I really enjoy taking computer science and working with mechanical and electrical engineers on a physical product,” said computer science major Tyler Koon, a senior from Lake Stevens, Washington.

The RoboSub Competition is sponsored each year by the Naval Sea Systems Command, or NAVSEA. MSU students interested in joining the RoboCats club can email, and the team posts photos

“I would recommend this club to anyone with an interest in robotics,” said team member Ethan Bandy, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering who participated in this summer’s competition. “I love the teamwork and the problem-solving. It's all very fun.”

- by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -

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