Race to the bottom

Minooka High School underwater robotics club strives to make international competition

On April 28, students from the Minooka Community High School underwater robotics club will fight for a top placement in a regional competition held at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, with hopes to move to an international competition.

“This club is about engineering and building parts and solving issues. I want a future focused on engineering and automotive. This is a rewarding achievement because it gives you a feeling of actually accomplishing something,” MCHS sophomore Julian Zid said.

Four years ago, MCHS science teacher Kimberly Villani attended a teacher workshop at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and was introduced to an underwater robotics program that was sponsored by the aquarium. Villani decided to dive into the idea and created this club in 2014. The program offered two years of training, funds, materials and workshops to prepare the high school clubs, and the third year of the program package consisted of support. After the third year, Villani said, the clubs were considered established.

The first two years, the club competed at a beginner or scout level and now the group has risen to the more advanced or ranger level. In the Shedd Aquarium Midwest Regional Marine Advanced Technology Education ROV Competition in Chicago on April 28, the top two high school clubs will be asked to attend the 2018 MATE International ROV Competition held this year in Federal Way, Washington, in June.

According to MATE, the MATE Center uses underwater robots, also known as remotely operated vehicles or ROVs, to teach science, technology, engineering and math and prepare students for technical careers. MATE worked in partnership with the Marine Technology Society ROV Committee and created the ROV competitions.

Each year in August, the MCHS club opens for enrollment and currently sees 30 students on a regular basis. They meet each week on Thursday and Friday to prepare for the spring competition where the robot they create will have to perform a multitude of tasks while underwater. Due to the lack of a public indoor pool, Villani worked with the Hampton Inn in Minooka to use its pool about every three weeks.

The team works on one robot the entire year, and Villani said it’s always a work in progress.

“We have an idea, but it’s always ongoing, we are always modifying. We use the engineering process to see how we can make it work and when it does work, we look at how we can modify it to make it better,” Villani said.

She also said the struggle between functionality and being the most high tech plays a role in the design. The robot the club made this year can function with basic flotation tools such as empty water bottles and pool noodles, but the team also wants to add a more high tech element for competition with the simpler method available for a back up in case technology fails. Villani said she has witnessed teams with extremely complicated robots that failed and the team was not able to put it in the water, so a balance has to be created.

Villani said the students had three parts to prepare for the regional competition. One was the creation of a robot capable to perform certain tasks in the water. Two, the group had to created a tri-fold poster as a marketing display as if the group was an actual company with the robot for sale and reach out to media and organizations. And last, the students have to give a speech to a panel of judges and be prepared for a question session.

Also, three tasks are required of the robot, which at the ranger level, will be in water 14 feet deep, so cameras must be used for the operator. The first task will simulate a plane crash in a lake and once coordinates to the wreckage have been relayed, the robot has to find the wreckage, attach a bag which lifts it up to the surface. The robot also must identify the aircraft tail in order to make a positive identification of the plane.

Next, with the robot, the group must disconnect a cable from a communication hub, put the cable connector in a holder, close the hub door, release the OBS from the anchor, and get it to the surface to collect. For the last task, the students work with tide current turbines, energy and charts underwater.

“This club offers real life applications, we use robots in real life and the underwater robots are more specific. This challenge is different because we can’t just dive down into the water when we have to fix it. It’s a fun club and we are all working together for a common goal,” MCHS sophomore Lisa Breen said.

According to the Shedd Aquarium, when the school was under its program, a $1,000 donation was given to the club. Now, that the MCHS underwater robotics club has become its own entity, funds must be raised in order to create the robot as well as attend competitions.

MCHS underwater robotics club public relations coordinator and student Nicholas Loychik said the club has hosted a variety of fundraisers such as bake sales, partner with Dock Rotz Tavern, chocolate bar sales and ExxonMobil donated gas cards, which were sold to fund the program. The club also has reached out to local businesses in search of donations.

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