Last November, the NaviGator team from the UF Machine Intelligence Laboratory (MIL) traveled to the land down under for the Maritime RobotX Challenge in Sydney, Australia. The competition, which involves boats being controlled by integrated autonomous robotic systems completing tasks on the water, featured teams from 20 universities in eight different countries. Prizes are awarded in categories such as the Autonomy Challenge and Design Documentation.
The team had high expectations entering the event after resounding successes in previous tournaments, including winning the 2016 Maritime RobotX Challenge and earning second place in the 2021 Virtual RobotX Challenge. Unfortunately, an issue getting the boat and equipment through Australian customs sunk the team’s aspirations, as the shipment wasn’t delivered until the day before the finals. It marked the first time the UF team didn’t make the finals of a RobotX competition.
“They were and are a tremendous group,” said Dr. Carl Crane, one of the professors who supported the team. “We are very proud of the efforts of the team although we didn’t get the final results we were hoping for.”
Dr. Eric Schwartz, director of the MIL, emphasized the value of the experience for those who participated.
“The students who attended learned a tremendous amount, both from other teams and the judges and staff at the regatta,” he said. “We hope that the lessons learned will help us again reach the podium in the 2024 competition.”
The preparation process for the event lasted several months and centered on all-day testing at Lake Wauburg, a UF-owned lake eight miles from campus, once every weekend. Often, each of these testing sessions focused on a specific task that would be evaluated at the tournament. The team tinkered with the placement and operation of computers, sensors, motors, and various other electronics on the boat. On the software side, the team had to refine the boat’s computer vision, networking, path planning, and obstacle avoidance abilities, along with other elements.
“We wanted to make our systems robust, yet flexible and easy to understand. To achieve this, we put a lot of time into documentation (for easier understanding), testing (to ensure reliability), and ensuring maintainability (for flexibility),” said Cameron Brown, a computer science major who worked on the boat’s software. “We put these design principles into place for each of our systems.”
Team leader Alex Perez, who graduated with a degree in computer engineering after the Spring 2023 semester and is now working at L3Harris, noted that coordinating and communicating effectively across a wide range of engineering disciplines was among the greatest challenges of the process. The team also had to cope with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down the MIL for over four semesters.
“Many of our leaders graduated without passing along their knowledge, since there was no in-person overlap with most labs shut down,” Schwartz said. “So we had a very inexperienced team, but they worked very hard.”
In addition to the team’s strong resilience, Schwartz also highlighted the profound pleasure of working with and making fond memories with this group.
“This is something that they, and I, will talk about when we are 80 years old,” he said. “Competing and seeing our designs work brings pure joy.”
Brown also cherished the overall experience, which reinforced her love and fascination for the field of robotics.
“Attending the competition was truly an incredible experience,” she said. “The energy at the event was like nothing else, and it is really inspiring. You really understand how important robotics is to our world and the communities we’ve built.”
The team now sets its sights on the RoboSub competition, a similar event for submarines (like RobotX, it is also run by the nonprofit RoboNation), which will be held in San Diego in late July and early August. They will be trotting out their SubjuGator 8 submarine for the event. Though he himself has departed, Perez looks ahead to the team’s future with confident optimism.
“There are many very smart individuals in each engineering discipline who I believe have the potential to do amazing things and pick up where we left off,” he said.
Story by: Ben Crosbie
Marketing & Communications Student Assistant
UF Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
July 7, 2023