Students build underwater robot, prep for national competition

HARLINGEN — Ryan Barlow’s hands gripped the remote control.

It was a tiny box, but it had the power to send an underwater robot to the bottom of the pool. The remote could send the vehicle through a course of black rings, back to the surface, to the end of the pool and back.

The remote control gave the orange and green frame with a motor its personality; no, 17-year-old Ryan gave it personality as he rapidly pushed switches and buttons. The small structure, made of PVC pipe, spun around the pool at the Harlingen school district’s Aquatics Center like a microbe.

But it wasn’t a microbe. Its name is “Shark,” and it was built by the Harlingen High School South Engineering Club. Ryan was one of several club members at the pool yesterday. They were checking to see if “Shark” was ready for the Sixth National SeaPerch Challenge to be held May 20.

“The students have been building and practicing with new robots so that they can review how they were constructed,” said HHSS Engineering Club Sponsor Javier Garza.

Nearby, a group of engineering club members from Harlingen High School were working with their robot, “Red Rover.”

“I am excited,” said Vivian Lopez, 16, club president. “I am glad that we are teaming up with South.”

That’s right. Five members of each club will pull together as one team to compete at the SeaPerch challenge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

SeaPerch is an underwater robotics program in which students build a vehicle from a kit provided by the organization. Students and teachers follow a curriculum that teaches basic engineering and science concepts with a marine engineering theme. Students learn about robotics, engineering, science and mathematics (STEM studies) while building their underwater robot.

Students from both clubs showed they’d learned a great deal.

However, the big question now is, “Whose robot will they use?”

“I am rooting for ours,” said Vivian Lopez, 16, historian for the HHS club.

“Red Rover” performed very well last October when it competed in the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology Week in Edinburg. Both high schools competed in the underwater robot portion of HESTEC. The competition was called the U.S. Navy SeaPerch Challenge, and their scores qualified them for the national SeaPerch challenge later this month in Baton Rouge.

Everyone seemed to be helping each other and exchanging ideas.

“It seems overly buoyant,” said Paul Tenison as Ryan directed the robot back and forth.

“It was decided that way because at the time we thought that was what was necessary,” answered Ryan without taking his eyes off “Shark.”

“I feel it’s the way to go,” Ryan said. “It helps with rising up faster toward the top.”

The event is made up of two challenges. One, the robot has to maneuver an underwater obstacle course. The second challenge is to retrieve an object from an underwater storage container and deposit the piece in another container above water.

After Red Rover’s stellar performance in October, the HHS club had to build a smaller robot to fit the specifications for the challenge in Baton Rouge. That’s when the students ran into problems.

“It changed the hydrodynamics,” said Connor Smith, president of the club. “I think we found the problem and we’re fixing it. It was so small it was overly maneuverable and it made it hard to control. It was doing back flips in the pool.”

Connor said they plan to move the motors closer to the robot’s center so they won’t have as much effect when the vehicle is turning.

They’ve already had plenty of experience performing modifications on “Red Rover.”

One of those modifications involves switching out the length of the PVC nose.

“We can remove this nose right here,” he said earlier in the classroom. “You can take a longer piece of PVC pipe so it’s better able to pick up rings.”

If they use the HHS robot, he showed how they’d attach a shorter nose so the robot can make it through a 16-inch pipe.

The students had planned to make a decision yesterday, but in the end they chose to wait and consider the matter further.

“We just want to see if we could improve our robots or not,” Vivian said. “South, we have been waiting to work with them, so we want to see if they had any ideas.”

Obviously they all have plenty of ideas. Each can take them in a different direction, and each direction leads to a new experience in the world of science.