EMCC’s Ambitious Axolotls Tune in to Tenacity

Friday, October 6, 2023
EMCC’s Ambitious Axolotls Tune in to Tenacity Team Photo
Remote Operated Vehicle in the water
ROV team on computers, controlling the ROV
Team member with the ROV in the water

Underwater ROV Team Competes at MATE ROV World Championship in Colorado

When Estrella Mountain Community College’s (EMCC) underwater ROV team, the Ambitious Axolotls, arrived at the MATE ROV World Championship Competition last June in Longmont, Colo., the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the excitement of finally putting their underwater robot to the test was palpable. But little did these Mountain Lions know they’d have to work late into the night making modifications to their all-too-buoyant ROV if they were going to survive Day 2 of the competition.

The team of about 10 students spent nearly a year designing and building their ROV, or Remotely Operated Vehicle. They built the frame using PVC tubing and constructed its pneumatic gripper with a 3D printer. They purchased the control box and assembled it, soldering the control board and wiring all electrical components. They also equipped it with two cameras.

Tony Manarelli, a third-year EMCC student majoring in mechanical engineering who served as the team leader, said he joined the Ambitious Axolotols because he wanted to create a project with a team and gain more engineering experience outside the classroom.

“We had to design, prototype, test, analyze, and finalize the ROV. This is my first engineering project that I can include in my portfolio and résumé!” he said.

But after two semesters and nearly 400 hours of work designing and building their underwater ROV, the team couldn’t get it to sink on Day 1 of the competition even though they had successfully tested it before they left Arizona.

“We tested the ROV before we left for Colorado but the pool we tested it in was full of pool shock,” Tony said. “We suspected the density of the water in that pool was significantly different than a regular pool with no pool shock in it.”

With the majority of the missions on Day 1 being 12 feet underwater, EMCC’s Ambitious Axolotls did not score many points. (For those who aren’t in the know, an axolotl is a rather adorable aquatic salamander and the students chose it as their mascot for its cuteness factor.) So the team returned to their lodgings and Tony inquired about borrowing the hotel pool for the evening.

“As a team, we’re used to being adaptable, so we got a drill and drilled holes in the PVC frame,” Tony said. “We were there until midnight testing it to make sure it would descend.”

The team of students was assembled last fall by Dr. Jeff Miller who teaches biology at EMCC.  As an alumnus of the NOAA Teacher at Sea Program, Dr. Miller was given the opportunity to participate in a year-long program designed to help educators bring ROVs and marine technology into their classrooms and eventually joined a cohort of community colleges to start ROV programs at their schools and compete in the MATE ROV Competition.

“I jumped at the chance and started the project last fall, recruiting students from our engineering and biology programs,” Dr. Miller said. “MATE, through a grant from the National Science Foundation, funded the majority of the project including the trip to Colorado.”

Over the next year, the team built not one, but two robots — the ROV and an autonomous float. While the ROV was connected to a tether with students operating it using keyboards and joysticks, the float was designed to complete a mission all on its own.

“The float was actually designed and built from scratch by one student on the team: Steven Dotts,” Dr. Miller said. “He designed and built the buoyancy engine to make the float go up and down and wrote the code to make the float work autonomously and transmit data back to the mission operator.”

The float’s mission was to start at the surface, descend to the bottom of the pool, return to the surface, and transmit the time to the operator. It then needed to repeat the process. The float also needed some adjustments after the first run but performed flawlessly on Day 2 of the competition.

“Steven's float was one of the only floats that was able to complete the entire mission,” Dr. Miller said.

As for the ROV, the team’s tenaciousness paid off.

“Everyone was pretty dejected after the first day, but they showed great grit and motivation as they worked together to modify the ROV and address the challenges of the first run,” Dr. Miller said. “The second run in the pool was much better. The buoyancy problem was solved and the ROV was able to complete several missions. Needless to say, after experiencing the low of the first run, the team rejoiced in their successes.”

Despite the near blank on the first run, the team still finished fourth out of sixth in the Pioneer Division, which is composed of two-year community colleges. Dr. Miller said the team really bonded and worked well together, sharing both the highs and lows of competing.

“I was extremely proud of all their hard work and so happy they were able to cherish the feeling of success,” he said. “But what made it even better was that this was truly a student-run project. I’m not an engineer and didn’t play a major role in the design or building of the ROV or float. The students did everything.”

And they’ll do it again next June in Kingsport, Tenn.

“The ROV will be different than the first one because we plan on using a 48-volt system,” Tony said. “The last ROV used a 12-volt system, but we want to make this ROV more permanent and adjustable for future teams.”

Dr. Miller said the team learned a lot and will put that knowledge to good use at next year’s competition.

“The team really reflected on where they could do better, and I know they will be better prepared for all components of next year’s competition,” he said.