Students Blaze Trail in International ROV Competition at NASA

This summer the College of Technology reached an important milestone. A team of three students from the Mechanical Engineering Technology Program qualified their Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to compete in the international Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) annual competition. They are the first representatives from UH to do so.

Graduating seniors Joel Vazquez and Luke Herranen formed Team Azul to construct the ROV last year as their Senior Design capstone project. On a four-person team with alumni Walter Turner and Salah Ahmad, they designed and built a fully functional ROV platform in 12 months, raising almost $7,000 from various sponsors.

"We were really happy," Herranen said. "Our goal was to make it to the regional qualifier. And when we passed regionals that was just amazing. We were really excited to blaze a trail."

A ROV is an underwater robot which is used in the offshore industry to duplicate the work of a human diver, but at greater depth. They were visible during the BP Horizon oil spill, where they were used to cap the damaged wellhead and perform other vital functions at great depth.

"We worked on the project for an entire year, two semesters," Herranen said. "We easily spent 2000 man hours on the project in the senior design project phase alone."

With the goal of competing in the 2011 MATE competition, Team Azul's ROV - the Buoyant Open-architecture Submersible System (BOSS) - was designed to operate in fresh- or saltwater up to a depth of 65 feet. Equipped with two cameras, five motors, and a 120 foot tether, the BOSS is a formidable multi-purpose device. Its modular design allows it to support an independent sensor (such as a magnetometer) and a robotic arm, with more devices supported through the implementation of multiplexing. Simple controls contribute to the BOSS' versatility and ease-of-use, enabling anyone to pilot it with ease. The control system was designed by Computer Engineering Technology alumnus Nick Zuchlewski.

On April 30, the regional qualifier was held in NASA's Sonny Carter Training Facility, also known as the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Teams from Texas were required to complete three tasks: demonstrate maneuverability, take a depth reading, and remove a 2-inch PVC ring from the PVC tree at the bottom of the pool. Team Azul managed to complete these tasks and advanced to the international competition in which they competed against teams from Hong Kong, Russia, Egypt, China, and Iran, among others at the international competition June 16th through the 18th at the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

Though they placed 24 out of 26 teams, making it to the international competition was a monumental achievement for their small team, and Herannen admits the experience was much-needed.

"We got to the international competition and the smallest team was eight people," Herannen said. "Most teams had easily more than 15. Certain rules were not very well-defined. There was definitely an advantage to teams who had been there before."

Herannen credits the leadership of his professor, Raresh Pascali and the mentorship of Steve Mansfield, Vice President of Engineering at JP Kenney for bringing the team this far. Steve's initial guidance and tour of the 2010 Offshore Technology Conference 2010 in Houston was instrumental in guiding the team in the right direction.

"Dr. Pascali was a big help when we ran into problems," Herannen said. "He found a way to help us make it happen. When we were in senior design class, Steve helped us out and acted as a mentor."

Through it all Herannen feels he learned not only a great deal about how things work but how to work with different personalities and stick to a deadline.

"I personally picked up a lot of leadership qualities," Herannen said. "I learned how to set goals and evaluate them realistically. This project is definitely something I'm putting on my resume."