UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Triton RoboSub makes its debut at international competition

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Five of the 12 members of Triton RoboSub at the RoboSub competition with their autonomous submarine, Ra. 

By Kritin Karkare

San Diego, Calif., August 21, 2019 -- The UC San Diego Triton RoboSub team may be new, but they are already making a big splash. The team of 12 students was formed in 2019 and entered the International RoboSub Competition in July, qualifying for semifinals at their autonomous submarine competition debut.

The contest, held July 29th to August 4th at the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific’s Transducer Evaluation Center pool in San Diego, requires teams of students to build an autonomous submarine capable of completing various tasks underwater.

The Triton’s sub, named Ra as a nod to the university’s sun god statue, weighs in at 35 pounds of cameras, wires, circuits and motors fully waterproofed in two cylindrical containers mounted to a carriage.

Qualifying for semifinals is an impressive feat for a first-year team.

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Ra getting hoisted down into the Transdec pool for testing.

“Four months is not a lot of time to build a robot,” said Patrick Paxson, a computer science student and founder of Triton RoboSub. “A lot of teams spend maybe one or two years building their sub before they even show up.”

Since they were brand new, the team elected to focus their efforts on completing the first task of the event: teaching the submarine to autonomously drive itself to and through an underwater gate and back. 

“We only planned to go through the gate and qualify for this year, but we did that on day two of the competition,” Paxson said during the competition. “So we’re going to try and attempt the buoy challenge, which is identifying images of vampires underwater. Because we already have a lot of the pieces in place—we have a camera, we have an object detection algorithm that should work given the training data—we’re going to try and train it and test it and see what we can do by Saturday.”

The team is divided into a hardware subteam and a software subteam. It is also diverse by major, including students studying aerospace engineering, computer science, cognitive science, computer engineering and math. That interdisciplinary combination of fields lends itself well when designing such a robust and compact vehicle. 

A crucial component to any submarine is its waterproofing. For Triton RoboSub, this was one of their most difficult challenges, taking two months to perfect. Once that issue was solved, the team turned their attention to developing the robot’s autonomy. After the submarine is dropped into the pool, it has to rely on cameras and computer vision to navigate towards the gate, and then to identify the vampire images. To achieve this, the software team members implemented an object detection algorithm. They fed it over 20,000 images of the gate at different angles underwater captured by their GoPro. After that, they tagged boxes in the footage around the gate to help the submarine identify it when it sets off on its own. 

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A Navy diver stands by as Ra autonomously heads to the gate.  

Their performance at the competition—placing in the top 25—was better than they expected. In the three days before finals, they managed to rack up maximum style points going through the gate, as well as a coinflip heading challenge when starting the robot. Though they weren’t able to test their object detection retraining, the team is excited to implement what they learned from the past year and the competition going forward.

The hands-on experience Triton RoboSub members gain from the competition mirrors the skills used in current research on autonomous underwater systems. Paxson hopes that this will be a motivator for the group to grow in the future. 

For students interested in joining the Triton RoboSub team next year, check out their website: Triton RoboSub. Their first general body meeting is Friday, October 4th from 5pm to 7pm in the Price Center West Bear Room.

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