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Black Sea bound: South Whidbey robotics team sets sights on international competition in Romania

This is the story of a little team of South Whidbey student engineers making a big splash in the world of underwater robotics.

Atlantis Inc. ROV already had a Pacific Northwest regional title when the Black Sea International ROV Competition and Exhibition contacted the team of teenagers earlier this month. At the international competition held in Federal Way, Wash., last year, Atlantis won the Biggest Bang for the Buck Award for making a bot that could move, grab, prod, measure and see underwater that cost about $550 and placed 11th among more than 20 teams at the event and some 620 registered with the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center.

“Learning that it wasn’t just a form letter was a nice surprise,” said Hannah McConnaughey, 17, the team’s public relations lead.

And Atlantis wasn’t invited to just compete at the Black Sea competition held in mid-August in Constanta, Romania. The group, who range in age from 13 to 17, were asked to be the keynote speakers.

“They’ve basically gone from a kitchen table in Freeland on Whidbey Island to the Black Sea.”

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Ashley McConnaughey, the team’s chaperone and mother of Atlantis members Hannah and Haley.

For several months each year, for the past several years, Bob and Ashley McConnaughey’s Freeland home has been lost under a pile of PVC joints, wires, metal tubes and documents. The dining room table is covered with ROV materials, all organized in plastic bags and plastic storage tubs.

“It warms your heart to see a 12-year-old soldering,” Bob McConnaughey said.

On Friday, the last day of assembly before the first pool practice, the teens busily worked on propulsion, the manipulator, the team’s informational board that explains its mission statement, business and bot specifications, and its payload tool to extract a gelatinous agar. Seeing the PVC tube punch through the red cup of agar successfully delighted the team’s newest and youngest member, 13-year-old Annika Hustad.

“It does work,” Annika exclaimed.

The team, which once had five members but lost two to other endeavors, is down to four. Sisters Hannah and Haley McConnaughey and Chris Wilson, 17, have been part of Atlantis since its inception. This year, Chris was voted the team’s captain, but he is also the bot’s pilot and one of the top engineers —as evidenced by his tinkering with copper tubing to be used as a conductivity tester as part of the ROV competition mission. Making the bot smaller than previous years for a mission that will simulate the investigation of an old shipwreck through a 60cm-by-60cm hole was a major challenge. But Wilson said the hardest part of building the bot was finding the right propellers and propeller shafts — the bot’s brass parts.

Up to the team’s first pool practice at Island Athletic Center — one of the team’s sponsors — Atlantis was working to extend the propellers away from the motors to reduce drag, Wilson said. Haley was busy trying to find the best way to allow the manipulator, a claw-like device that can grab objects, to rotate. For all the complicated engineering, fabricating, designing and writing that goes into the bot, some tasks are accomplished with the simplest tools. For example, taped to the front of the tiny bot is a common retractable tape measure, the kind found in household utility drawers.

“We found the simplest way [to measure] is a tape measure,” Haley said.

Getting to the Black Sea competition will be no simple task, as the team must raise the money to go. Ashley McConnaughey estimated that each plane ticket will cost about $2,000. For a team that built a bot out of donated materials from South Whidbey hardware and thrift stores, that’s big bucks and takes a quest for sponsorship to a new level.

Team Atlantis needs financial assistance to get to the Black Sea International ROV Competition, and the team’s website — designed by Hannah and the crew — has its sponsorship prices listed and a donate button at the bottom of its sponsorship page www.atlantisrovteam.com/sponsors2014.html

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