Little island, big impact: South Whidbey robotics teams make a splash at regional event

The Atlantis Inc. ROV team celebrates its second-place trophy from the MATE Pacific Northwest Regional competition on May 10.  - Ashley McConnaughey photo
The Atlantis Inc. ROV team celebrates its second-place trophy from the MATE Pacific Northwest Regional competition on May 10.
— image credit: Ashley McConnaughey photo

Four South Whidbey underwater robotics teams made quite the splash at the MATE ROV Pacific Northwest Regional competition on Saturday.

Puget Sound Navigators, a South Whidbey-based team, won the newly-formed Navigator division. A pair of teams from South Whidbey Academy placed third: PCW in the Navigator division and the Underwater Submarine Seals in the Scout division.

“I’m really, really pleased,” said Timmie Sinclair, the mentor for the two South Whidbey Academy teams that entered the competition in their first year as a ROV club. The school, built as an alternative learning program for K-12, has 42 students signed up with ROV teams, out of which 24 competed at the regional event.

Atlantis Inc., a Freeland-based team of four teenagers, took second place in the Ranger-division and missed out on a chance to repeat as the Ranger remotely operated vehicle (ROV) champions after taking first place last year.

In previous years, enough teams entered the Pacific Northwest Regional that the top two teams in the Ranger division qualified for the international competition, to be held in Michigan this summer. That didn’t happen this time around, and Atlantis Inc.’s Chris Wilson, Hannah McConnaughey, Haley McConnaughey and Annika Hustad were left disappointed but motivated for future competitions.

“We are really proud of what we accomplished,” said Wilson, the team’s captain and the ROV’s pilot, in a news release prepared by Atlantis Inc. “This is one of the most competitive regions in the world. Our goal was first or second, and we achieved that. Now we can completely focus on winning the Black Sea ROV Competition in Romania this August. We’re hungry now.”

Scores were not released by press time, leaving Atlantis to wonder how it performed in the individual categories of the presentation and mission. Though the members already knew they lost points in the mission after an inspection resulted in the need to wrap a piece of tape to the bot’s manipulator its adjustable claw-lake tool that could poke, prod and grab objects in the King County Weyerhauser Aquatic Center pool. The tape, however, interfered with the pilot’s precision, said Ashley McConnaughey, Atlantis’ mentor.

“We are, understandably, very disappointed to achieve our goal and then to have something beyond our control cause us not to advance to internationals, especially when this was Atlantis’ last regional competition,” said Hannah, referring to the team disbanding after this year. “But we are so proud to have created this legacy of excellence and we are even more determined to take first place at our last world-class competition in Romania on the Black Sea this August before the team retires.”

Mishaps like broken cables, malfunctioning cameras and missing parts are all part of the mission trial. For one of the South Whidbey Academy teams, the broken camera during the mission required a new wire to be soldered on deck. Sinclair said it was a joy to watch the elementary and middle-school age students work through the problem on their own.

“These guys had resigned themselves to utter failure,” she said. “The night before there were tears and frustration and plenty of hair pulling.”

She praised the ROV clubs as a tool to capture students’ attention in disciplines like mathematics and science.

“If it doesn’t stink, it doesn’t blow up, then you’re not doing science right,” she said.

Of the nine grade-school trophies presented to the Scout, Navigator and Ranger division’s top three teams, four were awarded to teams from South Whidbey. In the Ranger class alone, there were 13 teams. McConnaughey remarked that seeing so many students who live on South Whidbey, with a population of about 12,000, was an incredible feeling.

“The reign of South Whidbey robotics has in fact really started,” she said.


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