While the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization has been offering robotics competitions for 30 years, it’s just one of many fun opportunities for kids to learn more about robotics. The SeaPerch challenge, sponsored by the United States Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) and managed by RoboNation, is a competition focused on underwater robotics. Students build a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) and in the process learn to solve problems, use an engineering design process, work with a team, and address real-world applications for technology.
History of SeaPerch
SeaPerch was started as an educational program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by two faculty members who thought the underwater robot project would help strengthen both MIT’s Ocean Engineering Program and a teacher training program in the Boston area. Over time and with the involvement of the ONR, the program grew beyond MIT and Boston to become a national educational outreach program for K-12 students. In 2011, RoboNation became involved, and the first National SeaPerch Challenge was held in Philadelphia. In the 2017-2018 school year, the challenge was renamed the International SeaPerch Challenge to reflect the growing number of international teams.
About the ONR
The ONR is an office of the United States Navy focused on science and technology research that benefits the Navy, the Marines, and the country as a whole. The ONR was authorized by law in 1946 and since then has sponsored a variety of projects, including the research of 64 Nobel Laureates in chemistry, economics, medicine, and physics. Some of the achievements of the ONR include the development of Alvin, a deep ocean crewed submersible vehicle; the launches of SEALAB I and II, underwater habitats for long-term living; and the creation of NOGAPS, a global weather prediction system. It’s also a former ONR researcher, Dr. Robert Ballad, who is credited with the discovery of the wreckage of RMS Titanic.
RoboNation is a nonprofit organization with the purpose of introducing robotics to students in kindergarten through college to encourage interest in robotics careers. It promotes interactive robotics opportunities through the support of its sponsors AUVSI, MathWorks, Northrup Grumman, NVIDIA, Raytheon, Siemens, SOLIDWORKS, and Velodyne LiDAR. To meet its mission of helping students find solutions to real-world problems, RoboNation focuses on the promise held by technology to achieve new discoveries. SeaPerch is just one of many competitions and programs RoboNation is involved in.
The 2019 SeaPerch Challenge
The 2019 SeaPerch Challenge took place over two days in June at the University of Maryland. Hundreds of teams that had previously won regional competitions took part in the international challenge. The HMS SeaBots: Thalassa team from Harrington Middle School in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, was declared the overall winner. This team was also the overall Middle School Stock Class winner.
The Gulf Coast Contenders from the Underwater Robotics Educational Excellence Foundation in Saucier, Mississippi, and the Sea Dogs from Austin Preparatory School in Reading, Massachusetts, won in a tie as the overall High School Stock Class winners. In the Open Class, the Hetwiler Halibuts from Fleming Island, Florida, took home the top honors.
The Open Class is not separated by grade level and includes teams that use a ROV that costs more than $25 to construct, has more than three thrusters, uses controls that are not simple switches, or uses power conditioning or pulse-width modulation controllers.
In addition to different classes of competitors, the competition also comprised different events. These events included the Engineering Design Process, the Mission: Rescue & Recovery Course, and the Obstacle Course. Overall winners as well as winners in each event for Middle School Stock Class, High School Stock Class, and Open Class teams were declared. In addition, teams were encouraged to participate in a citizen science project using their SeaPerch ROVs in a real-world application. The teams gave presentations on these citizen science projects on the second day of the challenge. A science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) expo rounded out the activities during the 2019 SeaPerch Challenge.
The 2020 SeaPerch Challenge
In 2020, the Sea Perch Challenge will again be hosted by the University of Maryland. The competition is scheduled for May 30-31. Teams will keep an engineering design process notebook and will be asked to submit either the notebook, a video, or an executive summary for judging. There will also be an optional citizen science project, this time with the theme of waterway cleanup.
The waterway cleanup theme will also predominate in the Mission Course category, in which teams will need to demonstrate that their ROV can disable a mine, navigate a debris field while removing floating trash, raise sunken trash, and open and close an underwater vault to deposit trash inside it. The Obstacle Course category will also be offered with teams maneuvering their ROVS in all directions, at or near full speed, in a timed race. Regional competitions leading up to the 2020 International SeaPerch Challenge will take place throughout the United States and internationally.