Aqua-bot program challenges student ingenuity

By Ed PetersenAugust 16, 2012

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. (Aug. 15, 2012) -- For the past three years, the Navy's underwater robotics program, SeaPerch, has been used to introduce local students to the art and science of engineering.

SeaPerch has had varying levels of success throughout the nation. The Picatinny Arsenal SeaPerch program has become an innovative leader in educational outreach as the program has evolved.

Scientists and engineers from the Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC, have been working with staff from the Picatinny Youth Center to continuously improve the program.

The program's goal, to stimulate interest in science and technology among young people, is under the auspices of the Department of Defense Ordinance Technology Consortium, or DOTC, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, known as STEM, Office.

The Picatinny SeaPerch program began in 2009 and involved a group of 25 students assisted by five scientists and engineers. The technical personnel first familiarized themselves with the program by building a number of working remote controlled underwater vehicles with instructions provided by a visiting NavSea instructor.

At the start of the summer Youth Camp, students were shown functional vehicles that the technical personnel had made. The students' mission was to build an underwater vehicle capable of maneuvering though submerged hoops and retrieving a metal plate using a magnet.

In the first year, DOTC STEM experimented with providing students extra material such as unnecessary fittings and extra lengths of pipe.


The results were mixed. Many robots that the students came up with were simply enlarged, standard designs of the SeaPerch model that had been demonstrated to them.

In the following year, the program expanded to two classes of 25 students each, supported by 10 scientists and engineers. The design aspect was further enhanced by not providing detailed instructions or a model that the students could copy.

Rather, the students had to function as an Integrated Product Development Team.

Their mission was to design, develop, build, present and test unique designs to solve the underwater challenge. The variation in designs increased dramatically.

In the third year, now with three classes and 15 technical mentors, the idea of using an open architecture model and advancing into the world of complex engineering was explored.


Limitations were placed on the space that the craft could occupy in transport and storage. No limit was placed on the number of parts that could be used.

This design parameter mimics many real-world problems that engineers face every day.

They have to design a product to perform a function, but the product must easily be integrated into the existing logistics pipeline.

The subsequent student designs were more diverse than expected. Not a single robot looked like the standard SeaPerch.

A true evolutionary leap had occurred in the way students viewed the problem. As a result, overall student enthusiasm increased along with the level of inquiry-based interaction between technical mentors and their students.

When the students presented their design solution to their peers, their overall level of confidence and understanding rose dramatically.

In order to continue our evolutionary development of the program and to keep the older students on their toes, instructors focused on the problem statement.


The standard challenge of traversing a given set of obstacles underwater and retrieving a metal plate had reached its limit.

Using the existing drive motors, floats, and extra parts, students were asked to develop a water skimming robot.

The objective was to design robots that could skim the surface of the pool to capture floating rubber ducks.

The resulting designs were more creative than expected and all functioned brilliantly.

This year DOTC-STEM and the Picatinny Youth Center continued to move forward with innovative open architecture student outreach.

Three highly qualified instructors were added to the Picatinny STEM Academy.

During an intensive one-week session, students worked on solving engineering problems.

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