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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

31 May 2022

The 2022 Maritime RobotX Challenge

JCU Bachelor of Engineering — Bachelor of Science student Ethan Waters is one of the leaders of the JCU Robotics Team in the 2022 Maritime RobotX Challenges this November. However, the competition itself is only one of many challenges the team will have to face before travelling to Sydney to compete.

The 4th Maritime RobotX Challenge is an international competition for high school and university students. It will be held from 11 – 17 November 2022 at the Sydney International Regatta Centre. The JCU Robotics Team will be one of twenty competitors from around the world, and one of six Australian teams.

For the competition, the JCU Robotics Team will need to outfit a ‘robot boat’ — or an ‘autonomous maritime system’ — that can navigate an obstacle course without human help. Ethan Waters, who is the President of JCU's robotics and electronics club (Robo Club), says the club will join the 2022 competition in Sydney because they needed something that would involve all members of the club, who all have different levels of experience when it comes to robotics.

“RobotX is a cool competition because it has so many facets to it,” Ethan says. “We applied in June 2021, and they gave us the frame of the boat in October, and it’s up to us to do everything else.” The frame of the boat is called a “Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel” (WAMV). It is almost five meters long and 244 centimetres wide, and it looks like a very basic catamaran.

Robot boat launch.
Robot boat launch.
Launching the robot boat for the first time in April 2022. (Supplied by Ethan Waters.)

From a frame to a boat

Just like all other teams that are competing, the JCU Robotics Team received the boat for free. Out of the box, the boat had no motor and no electronics but a lot of potential. “We have a few mechanical engineering students who are working on the motors, for example. We have the electrical engineering students who take care of the communication systems and control systems, and we also have software engineers, drone operators and website designers,” Ethan says.

Ethan himself concentrates on the overall project management and PR, as well as liaising with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). “We do our testing at the AIMS site south of Townsville, and I coordinate the trials,” Ethan says.

The boat frame alone weighs 154 kilograms before adding the motors and the electronics. The team can use the AIMS crane to get the boat into the water, which makes everything a little bit easier for them.

Aid from a veteran boat designer

JCU Alumni Melanie Olsen, who works as a Team Leader of Technology Development at the AIMS site, is a veteran of the RobotX competition and a great asset to the team. Ethan says he is very thankful for Melanie’s support as she has made the team aware of a number of important issues, such as corrosion in sea water. “We’ve obviously built electronics before, but none of us have ever done it in a marine based setting, so Melanie assisted us in choosing what type of waterproofing to install,” he says.

Melanie has also provided advice on the trickier side of image recognition, which is easy to do for humans and more difficult for robots. “How do the water reflections affect image recognition?” asks Ethan. “Or, if the boat sees the reflection of an object in the water, will it try to detect the water or the actual object? These are the questions we needed to answer."

Working on the robot boat.
Working on the robot boat.
The JCU Robotics Team working on the robot boat. (Supplied by Ethan Waters.)

Making sure the boat works

The team has already bought the majority of the parts they need for the complete RobotX project. “We still have some parts to get, but what we are doing right now is mostly programming and integrating the systems and making sure that they all work successfully,” he says.

During the competition, the robot boats will have to master several exercises, including obstacle courses and avoiding imaginary animals such as a crocodile, a turtle and a platypus. Ethan says that the boat can already master these exercises manually with remote controls, but they haven't tested it automatically yet.

Working through the exercises

The animal exercise is actually more difficult than it sounds. “The platypus and crocodile exercise needs footage from a hyperspectral camera — a camera that can see more colours than the human eye — to detect certain wavelengths. The boat has to drive either clockwise or anti-clockwise around the particular object,” Ethan says. “Hyperspectral imaging is a very computer-intensive process. So, it will probably be the very last exercise that we will focus on.”

Ethan says that, for now, it is more important to focus on getting the boat to work on the tasks step by step, beginning with the easiest challenge. “We think that it may be beneficial that we are not trying to work on all tasks simultaneously. Instead, we incrementally go through each of them and find out which are the most important ones,” he says.

“It’s important that you have a functioning boat, and if you miss some tasks, that's fine. Because, previously, at some competitions, some teams have not been able to do very much at all because they have tried to do everything at once.”

Members of the JCU Robotics Team

Supplied by Ethan Waters

Boat and drone working together

An added challenge in 2022 is the use of an external drone that should bring an object to the boat and that should also help the boat find its way. “The drone will use image recognition to locate where all the different obstacles are. Of course, the boat should have Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) and its own sensors to hopefully avoid the obstacles by itself,” Ethan says. “But if the boat knows where these obstacles are to start with, it makes everything easier and faster to process.”

Focus on getting things right

The JCU Robotics Team is competing for the first time at the Maritime RobotX Challenge, whereas other teams already have a working boat from the last competition. “Some of the other teams already have everything pretty much ready to go,” Ethan says. This is why the JCU team is not aiming for the number one spot in the 2022 competition.

Instead, the team is working hard to build the best debut autonomous boat they possibly can. “We are focusing on the boat, on getting it ready to complete all the exercises,” Ethan says. “I see it as an accomplishment for us to be able to complete all the tasks, and it will be a great learning experience for the whole team as well.”

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