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Placing ROV into pool

The World Cup (of Underwater Robots)

By Kathryn Klett

While the sporting world is fixated on the World Cup in Brazil this summer, another international tournament is about to take the quiet Michigan town of Alpena by storm. Teams of students from around the globe are gathering there this week for three days of intense competition - but they won't be taking the field or kicking a ball.

Their arena is a 600,000-gallon pool. Their sport? Underwater robotics.

Sixty teams of students representing 18 states and 13 countries will converge on NOAA's Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena from June 26 to 28 for the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center's International ROV Competition, an annual test of engineering skill in which participants design, build and pilot remote-controlled robots through a series of underwater challenges.


Hosted by MATE on the campus of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in partnership with the National Science Foundation, and the Marine Technology Society's ROV Committee, this year's event is all about the role of ROVs (short for "remotely operated vehicles") in exploring shipwrecks and sinkholes - two major topics of interest for the sanctuary - in the extreme underwater environment of northwestern Lake Huron.

Real Science, Serious Business

ROV performing task under water

Make no mistake: these ROVs may look cool, but they aren't toys. The designs on display range from high-tech to incredibly sophisticated, which makes sense, considering the demands of the competition. Teams in 2014 will have to navigate their robotic minions around a mock shipwreck, take measurements, conduct sonar scans, remove debris from the wreck, retrieve samples, and numerous other complicated tasks if they hope to take home the top prize.

The students, who range from junior high to university level, are not only required to complete research-oriented tasks - they also have to know how to maneuver in the business world. Each year, the competition challenges students to create their own companies in an effort to design, build, and "market" their product, and the teams will be judged on their companies' ability to communicate their robots' construction and design.

The Next Generation

Students building their ROV

The panel of judges for the competition includes top professionals representing industry, science, government and exploration, providing great exposure for these aspiring young engineers. The Ocean Career Expo, organized by MATE and its partners at the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, also provides the students with opportunities to explore their futures in the field.

While there's no golden trophy awaiting the winners, the competition will be fierce as the teams battle for international bragging rights. Tune into the live stream and watch all three days of the competition at MATE's website,!

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