Send our robot sub to San Diego

MAKE A SPLASH: Members of the ARVP club adjust their robot before a dive.

(Edmonton) Robots are only cool inasmuch as they can do stuff on their own, based on the hardware, systems and programming they have. Otherwise they are pretty much just another appliance. But, like appliances, they can wear out. The replacement costs are steep, so one U of A engineering club has parlayed its track record in robotics into a great crowdfunding campaign.

“We have a long tradition of autonomous vehicles at the U of A,” said third-year Computer Engineering student Randi Derbyshire. As the team admin lead of the ARVP club (Autonomous Robotic Vehicle Project), she’d know. The club has been programming and entering robots into competitions since 1997.

“The club had a lot of success,” she said, “usually placing in the top 20 and often being the top-placed Canadian team.” In fact, ARVP did so well that, in 2007, the team switched to an underwater autonomous vehicle competition. Yep, that’s robot submarines.

A contest for a robot sub includes, for example, an underwater obstacle course, maneuvering around buoys, shooting torpedoes at targets, moving towards ping sounds—all of which the robot must accomplish by itself. After all, it’s not a remote-control drone, which is where the “autonomous” part comes in.

“The club did really well and, in 2015, came in eighth out of 38 and was the top Canadian team,” Derbyshire said. But by 2016, the robot the ARVP team was using was a few years old. “We started experiencing unexpected breaking,” she said. No amount of repair or computer engineering could counter the problem. They knew that to continue their club’s legacy of success, they would need to retire their old sub, AquaUrsa, and opt for a new build, which they’ll call Auri.

The problem? The basic unit they need will cost $13,000. “The economy is such that sponsorship is harder to come by,” Derbyshire said. The club was lucky—and grateful— to receive a $5,000 donation from Petro Barrier Systems Inc., an R&D company dedicated to ridding water bodies of contaminants. But the team is still short of their goal.  

We decided to turn to crowdfunding,” Darbyshire said. “It has been amazing.” With guidance from UAlberta’s USeed the ARVP team is more than 70 per cent of the way to its goal with more than two weeks left on its crowdfunding drive.

“That $13,000 is the budget for building the new robot,” she said. That amount gives the mechanical team the means to build the robot, the electrical team to build the new electrical hardware, and the software team to program the robot, and make it able to navigate its way through the obstacle course.

The team hopes to take Auri to the annual AUVSI Foundation’s RoboSub competition in San Diego in July, 2017.