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Robotics club finishes 2nd at aquatic event

Like many students enjoying the last few days of summer, members of the Duke Robotics Club spent a lot of time at the pool.

They weren't working on their tans, however-they were competing for $7,000 at the Ninth International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition in San Diego.

Duke's team, which consisted of five undergraduates and two faculty sponsors, placed second out of 21 teams and took home $5,000.

Sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Office of Naval Research, the competition took place from Aug. 2 to Aug. 6.

Duke finished just behind the University of Florida, which completed the same amount of tasks but received a bonus for weighing less, coming away with the win, said junior Andrew Waterman.

During the competition, teams from around the country created robots that completed various tasks in the water.

Robots swam through a gate, dropped markers into bins, navigated to a docking station and located an acoustic device underwater and then surfaced-all without a human driver and sometimes as deep as 16 feet underwater.

This year, Duke's Autonomous Underwater Vehicle was named Charybides after a mythical whirlpool.

The robot was built from scratch, based on the team's previous designs and mistakes, said team member Gareth Guvanasen, a junior.

"We have a pretty unique design," said junior Jack Tao. "Ours looks more like a UFO and the others are submarine designs."

Charybides' spherical shape allowed for precise navigation, a zero turning radius and more flexibility in the placement of thrusters, which are used to move the robot.

Only one undergraduate member of the team had previously participated in the competition.

All competitors stayed in the same hotel, giving regular vacationers a unique opportunity to see the state-of-the-art robots that were being prepped and tested in the hotel pool.

Not all of the vacationers were completely comfortable with Charybides and its kind swimming alongside them, however.

"Some high school girls thought we were trying to take pictures of them," said Waterman with a smile.

In addition to fostering innovation and camaraderie among engineers and students, the competition served as a recruiting mechanism for the naval company SPAWAR, which hosted this year's competition, Tao said.

Duke students have been especially sought after-three of the six competitors who were offered jobs in past years were Duke students.

Team members predicted that hotel guests during AUV competitions will not be the only average people to have encounters with aquatic robots in the near future.

"A lot of this technology you'll see trickled down to consumer applications-for example robotic pool cleaners," Tao said. "You'll see a lot of innovative applications we can't even think of right now."

Its use is not limited to commercial purposes.

"Military technologies will be where it benefits most directly though," said Waterman.

Despite the hours of work and the narrow loss of first place, the members of the team regarded the competition as a positive experience.

"I've always loved robotics in general," Guvanasen said. "To be given a challenge and be able to solve it-that's one of the greatest feelings."

Waterman expressed similar sentiments.

"It's a much more practical component of my education-and it's a hell of a lot of fun, too."

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