Members of Citys Robotics team show their autonomous robot The Kraken to attendees of the 15th annual RoboSub competition. July 22.
Members of City’s Robotics team show their autonomous robot The Kraken to attendees of the 15th annual RoboSub competition. July 22.

City Robotics competes at the international level

The last Sat. before the beginning of the new semester saw the core members of San Diego City Robotics reconvene on campus.

The team’s Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) sits inert atop a cart, while nearby professor Bob Pruitt and student and project leader Jose Sermeno balance a stack of receipts against a list of expenses.

The team must scrimp for every penny and resource and put in many hours working overtime to build the squat, modest-looking robot with a tank-like profile.

They are reimbursed by their sponsors for the components, for which they must pay out of pocket, but even with sponsors their AUV only represents about a $4,000 investment.  Compare this figure to the funds available to robotics programs at Cornell University and the University of Florida who, on average, spend $50,000 – $100,000 on their own AUVs.

The disparity only gives SDCR reason to compete at the same level as other schools. And they get their chance every year at the annual International RoboSub Competition, an event cosponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International foundation and the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

The competition draws students from around the world to the TRANSDEC research and testing facility in Point Loma, a 300-by-200 foot pool holding 6 million gallons of water.

The students’s AUVs must be able to complete a number of tasks in an underwater obstacle course. The vehicles are designed to be autonomous, meaning they are not remote controlled, but rely upon an array of sensors to gauge depth and direction, and to detect color while underwater.

“It is an amazing and one of a kind experience,” said Sermeno. “Students and engineers from around the world, all gathering to overcome the same goal.”

In 2011 SDCR placed 15th out of around 30 other schools and in summer 2012 they were looking to improve on their previous standing.

SDCR was not among the top six teams to place, who were announced at the competition, and the team will learn its exact placement in the coming weeks. Team member James Haak says he expects they will end up somewhere around 15th place again.

Still, 15th is quite an achievement for a team operating from a community college, which Sermeno says is quite rare.

In addition to preparing for the AUVSI tournament each year, SDCR practices outreach in the greater San Diego area. Twice they have been asked to attend the annual Robotic Education Expo, presented by the San Diego Science Alliance.

For its efforts, they were awarded the San Diego Mayors Cup for Community Outreach at the closing of the RoboSub Competition this year.

Sermeno proudly lifts the trophy, already losing its polish from being passed among the team members’ hands.

The award earned the team some much deserved recognition and attracted the attention of a representative from the Intel Corp.

SDCR and Intel plan to partner by refitting their AUV, dubbed “the Kraken,” with a new and better processor.

With that and other improvements they plan to make this semester, Sermeno is convinced the team will be a powerful force at the next Robosub competition.

“We can go top five,” says Sermeno.

“We’re going for blood, right?” Pruitt asks Sermeno in an aside.

Mesa College was also represented at RoboSub, but members of SDCR say its team now only consists of a single person, whom they are trying to persuade to come to City College.

They have also helped students from Southwestern College draft a plan for a robotics club at their own school.

SDCR needs to attract new members so that the team can subsist.

“We need to disseminate this knowledge,” says Sermeno.

SDCR is an engineering class in three sections: 50A, 50B and 50C, but anyone in the community can participate as a club member even if they are not an enrolled student.

They meet every Sat. at 9:30 a.m. in T214.

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City Robotics competes at the international level