Published: June 22, 2018 By

The ocean’s massive and mercurial nature can make underwater exploration a challenging undertaking. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) provide innovative ways of collecting data and conducting survey missions in the ocean.

A team of CU Boulder engineering students is designing and building AUVs to create the next generation of underwater vehicles. The RoboSub Club at CU Boulder is a student-led organization whose members gain professional development experience by designing and building AUVs. The organization is open to undergraduates and graduate students.

AUVs are unmanned, untethered, underwater vehicles that carry their own power source and rely on an on-board computer to execute a mission. The programmable robotic vehicles maneuver through the ocean without real-time control by human operators. AUVs can explore oceans and coastlines, map submerged wrecks and dangerous underwater obstructions, and examine bridges for infrastructure damage. 

“Typically, it takes years to really understand how everything works and to meaningfully be able to contribute,” said Jeff Venicx, team lead. “A lot of the systems we work on are things you wouldn’t learn until you’re in grad school, but we have the continuity of team members that are undergraduates and grad students to help teach these topics.”

This is Venicx’s third year on the team. He has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from CU Boulder and is finishing his master’s degree in electrical engineering and will start working on his PhD in computer science at CU Boulder in the fall.

CU Boulder Crowdfunding

Visit the crowdfunding page to help support the RoboSub project and help students with competition expenses.

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The CU team’s robosub is 4 feet long, 1½ feet wide and weighs 70 pounds. Eight thrusters move the robosub through the water. As much of the vehicle as possible is custom-designed and custom-made in the club’s lab at the College of Engineering and Applied Science. For example, a 120-pound block of aluminum they received from Ball Aerospace was milled down and used to construct a 9-pound center hull. 

The robosub navigates using a Doppler velocity log navigation system to measure the velocity in several directions, because GPS doesn’t function underwater. The CU team puts its robosub through its paces in CU’s Recreation Center dive well.

Applying classroom knowledge to real problems helps students become highly proficient engineers. One way they can do this is to compete at the 2018 International RoboSub Competition being held at the SPAWAR naval facility in San Diego, California. More than 50 student-led teams design and build autonomous robotic submarines that must complete a challenging set of visual- and acoustic-based tasks. The tasks simulate the work required of robotic subs in many areas of underwater activity. Each team has 30 minutes to complete as many challenges as possible, which include maneuvering through underwater gates and picking up and moving objects. Teams are also required to write a technical paper, make a presentation to a panel of judges, create a short video and develop a website that documents their progress.

The competition is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, Siemens Electronics, Northrup Grumman Corp., SpaceX and others.

“The course isn’t designed to be completed,” Venicx said. “We spend a lot of our time (at the competition) is strategizing which obstacles are most likely to get us the most points.”

There are a number of benefits for competing in the RoboSub Competition. Team members connect with industry leaders and interact with engineers from all over the world. Competing raises the profile of the university on the world engineering stage.

The RoboSub Club is an example of the hands-on focus of CU Boulder’s engineering entrepreneurial spirit. The club draws students from a variety of engineering areas: computer science, electrical and mechanical.

They recently have begun working with the Cooperative Human-Robot Intelligence Lab at CU Boulder to apply various machine learning techniques to the sub that have only been tested in simulation. They’re working to allow the sub to inform a human operator about the likelihood of completing a task, and to overcome problems such as damaged or obscured senors.

“The engineering field is extremely competitive now,” Venicx said. “You really have to do something extra to stand out. Showing recruiters what you’re passionate about makes a big difference in who gets hired. Going to the RoboSub Competition and having that at the top of your résumé, you immediately go to the top of the pile. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

To help support the students’ crowdfunding efforts to send as many team members as possible to the 2018 International RoboSub Competition in San Diego, go to the RoboSub Club’s crowdfunding page