Team of young underwater robot builders poised to make waves again

A team of five youngsters in grades five through eight are back in the pool again with a new gadget, practicing for another underwater robot competition this weekend.

The South Whidbey ROV team is made up of Jake Papritz

Look out below.

A team of five youngsters in grades five through eight are back in the pool again with a new gadget, practicing for another underwater robot competition this weekend.

They’re not actually in the pool — they’re at the edge, with their backs turned, operating their custom-built Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) with the help of sophisticated underwater cameras they designed themselves.

“I’ve learned so much science this year,” said Hannah McConnaughey, 14, of Freeland. “And it sounds much simpler than it really is.”

“It would be awesome if we did win,” she added, “but at this point it would be awesome just to make the ROV work.”

For the second year in a row, Team Atlantis, Inc. is entered in the MATE Pacific Northwest Regional Challenge on Saturday, May 7 at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.

The regional winner advances to the international competition at NASA’s Zero Gravity Lab in Houston, Texas in June.

The other local team members are Christopher Wilson, 14; his brother Steven, 11; Jake Papritz, 12; and Hannah’s sister Haley, 11. Jake attends Langley Middle School; the others study from home at the online public school Columbia Virtual Academy.

Team mentors are technical advisor Eric Wilson, two of the boys’ father, and Ashley McConnaughey, the girls’ mother.

Since September, they’ve been studying electronics, hydraulics, pulse-width modulators, propellers, cameras and more as they designed and built an underwater craft from scratch.

“I think it’s amazing you get to build your own vehicle,” said Haley, who worked on the underwater cameras.

“I absolutely adore soldering — it’s so fun,” she said.

Last year the team competed in the lower-division Scout level of the competition.

“They were in the thick of it,” Ashley McConnaughey. “They had a blast.”

This year they’ll compete on the high school level against a dozen teams that have years more experience.

“We needed something harder,” Steven said.

“It’s a huge learning curve,” McConnaughey said. “They know the odds of winning are pretty slim, but they’re going to have a blast.”

To get ready for the weekend, the team has been practicing with the robot in the Island Athletic Club swimming pool in Freeland, figuring out how to maneuver their latest vehicle.

The last tuneup before the competition will be from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5 and Friday, May 6 from 3 to 4 p.m. The public is invited.

“I’m impressed with the kids. They’ve taken ownership of the whole project,” said Rick Urban, manager of the athletic club. “We’re happy to be a part of it.”

“We have the obvious place to practice,” he added.

Last year, the theme of the contest was exploring underwater formations; this year teams will simulate dealing with a BP-like oil spill.

Ashley McConnaughey said teams must direct their ROVs to perform underwater tasks in the deep end of the pool, such as cutting pipe, installing a wellhead and turning valves. Each team will also be given a detailed chart of mathematical calculations, then direct their robots to extract a sample from the bucket that best matches the solution to the problem from among three choices.

“It’s really highly technical,” she said. She said scuba divers will be stationed in the pool to help with setup and deal with emergencies.

This kind of science study can get pricey, and team members have been scouring the island for sponsors.

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland were so impressed with the expertise of the young team members making the pitch that it donated $500, McConnaughey said.

Other sponsors onboard so far are Ace Hardware, Les Schwab Tires, Whidbey Island Dive Center, Grey Chicken Webworks, Columbia Virtual Academy, Pat Koughan of Lind’s Jewelers, Island Athletic Club and Blue Fox Printing.

Lind’s Jewelers has also donated a white gold and diamond Whidbey Island pendant that will be raffled off. Tickets are available at the team practices. Additional sponsors also are welcome, McConnaughey said.

While expectations remain measured, team enthusiasm is sky-high.

“While we might not win this year, just imagine how amazing we’re going to be two years from now,” Haley said. “We’re going to have lots of fun. I hope we don’t get soaking wet.”



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