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by by Capt. Edward Lundquist, USN (ret.)

This year, SAUC-E brought teams from around the world to compete from July 6 to July 13 in the tidal basin of NATO’s Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE), in La Spezia, Italy. Formerly called the NATO Undersea Research Centre (NURC), CMRE is a world-class scientific research and experimentation facility operating under the auspices of NATO’s Science and Technology Organization (STO). It conducts scientific research and technology development focused on the maritime domain serving all nations of the NATO alliance.

CMRE, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and ONR Global, and several other organizations sponsor events like SAUC-E to promote science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and develop the high-tech workforce of tomorrow. The teams that enter these competitions must program robots to operate autonomously, which means no remote-control tethers or commands communicated to the vehicle once their run commences.

SAUC-E started in 2006, with the first competition taking place at England’s Pinewood Studios. In 2007, the British defense technology company QinetiQ hosted the event at its indoor Ocean Basin tank in Gosport, England. The competition moved to the Brest, France, facility of the French Research Institute for Exploration of the Sea in 2008, returned to QinetiQ in 2009, and has been held at CMRE since 2010.

Dr. Vladimir Djapic, the CMRE scientist who served as technical director for SAUC-E 2012, said the event is “designed as a mini-grand challenge for the autonomous underwater community which will create a suitable environment for inter-disciplinary interactions between academic researchers.”

Teams may include up to 10 members, and can be made up of undergraduate and/or postgraduate students, faculty, industrial partners, or government partners. “Inter-disciplinary teams are encouraged,” Djapic noted.

The 14 teams that came to SAUC-E 2012 prepared for months, building and programming their underwater robots to meet the challenging requirements of the course in the best time. Building, programming, testing, and operating a truly “hands-off” autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) calls for a hands-on effort by every team member, because it requires the broadest possible range of expertise and talent in engineering, programming, and troubleshooting.

The CMRE location poses a special challenge. Unlike other underwater robotic vehicle competitions, which are conducted in pools, SAUC-E requires the robots to complete the assigned mission tasks in a testing basin open to the waters of the Mediterranean—with real-world wave action, visibility limitations, salinity, tides, and sonar conditions.

Kevin Larose, who led Team SONIA, from Quebec’s École de Technologie Supérieure (ETS), which bested 29 other teams in the 2011 International Robo-Sub competition in San Diego last summer, said they expected the environment at La Spezia to be more difficult. “Because of the water conditions here at CMRE, we have to rely less on vision and more on other sensors. The pool in San Diego is fresh water and has no current.”

“Sonar is very reliable for determining distance, and compliments our DVL [Doppler Velocity Log] and IMU [Inertial Measurement Unit],” said SONIA’s mission manager François Campeau, “The experience we gained here using sonar will help us at Robo-Sub.”

“We like both events,” Larose added, “They’re different.” In fact, Team SONIA went directly from La Spezia to San Diego for Robo-Sub 2012 the following week, where they came in third and took home a $3,000 prize.

For 2012, the CMRE basin was divided into two equivalent “arenas” to give the larger number of teams more time to practice with equal obstacles. The assigned underwater tasks were:

  • Submerging in a designated zone and passing through a gate to begin the run

  • Inspecting an “underwater structure,” which involved following an underwater pipe

  • Searching for a soft, acoustically and optically reflective “mid-water target”—a submerged buoy—determining whether or not a locating beacon was illuminated, and communicating that information to another autonomous vehicle via an acoustic modem

  • Surveying a non-linear portion of the CMRE basin’s wall from a constant standoff distance

  • Tracking CMRE’s ASV, a small catamaran, while it was in motion in the basin

  • Surfacing in a designated zone to complete the run

  • In addition, the teams were encouraged to “impress the judges” and earn extra points through a creative demonstration of some outstanding aspects of their system

The judges recognized winners in eight specialized categories: Rookie of the Year, Design and Innovation, Engineering, Best Use of Resources, Affordability, Smart Technology, Multinational, and Best Performance in the “impress the judges” Task.

Dr. Laurent Beaudoin, an advisor to the two teams from the École Supérieure d’Informatique Electronique Automatique (ESIEA), in Paris, noted that students participating in events such as SAUC-E obtain invaluable practical experience. “Scientists are judged by the number of papers they publish about their theories. They can prove their algorithms work in a perfect environment. But these students are dealing with real currents, changing light as clouds pass over, and poor visibility in the water. They have a connection with reality that allows them to show what they can actually accomplish.”

Despite the months of preparation before arriving at La Spezia, some teams encountered daunting difficulties that taxed the skill and resourcefulness of every team member. For example, the team from the University of the West of England (UWE) suffered several setbacks and did not qualify. “We broke batteries, chargers, and soldering irons,” said UWE team leader Gareth Griffiths. “We had a cable explode—rather spectacularly, I might add—and our gasket seal was damaged and the pressure vessel flooded. We really couldn’t recover from the water getting inside.”

A photo collage of the 14 robotic vehicles that competed at SAUC-E 2012.
Created by Dario Sosa,Judge at SAUC-E ‘12.

Nevertheless, the team kept on doing whatever they could to fix the problems and get the vehicle ready to qualify. “It was still a valuable learning experience,” Griffith says, “we’re already thinking about next year.”

The winner of SAUCE-E 2012 was the SONIA AUV fielded by the team from Quebec’s ETS. Second prize went to Hanse, created by a German team from the University of Luebeck. In third place was a team from France’s École Nationale Supérieure de Techniques Avancées (ENSTA), with the AUVs Sauc’isse and Sardine. Germany’s University of Bremen came in fourth with AVALON, which had achieved the highest score in the qualifying round.

In addition to the satisfaction of bringing their underwater vehicles to the challenge and competing against the other teams, the top three finishers received €3,000, €2,500, and €2,000, respectively, to improve their equipment for future competitions. All other teams received €750 each for their effort and to encourage their continued improvement.

“The students of today are the scientists of tomorrow,” said CMRE Deputy Director Andy Pickup, “It’s rewarding to see them stretch their minds, explore new technologies and find innovative ways to solve common problems and engage the challenges placed before them.”

“I was impressed by their team spirit, teamwork, innovative creativity, and their spirit of sharing,” Pickup added, “Even though the teams are competing against one another, I have seen the cooperation between them.”

Capt. Edward Lundquist (ret.) is a principal science writer at MCR Federal in Arlington, Va.