some of them are using very small computers, so vehicle strays off course by following the reflection
they’ve been able to pack everything down into a of the sun, taking third, while University of Florida’s
small case. One team has a boxy design that looks Subjugator — a clear cylinder with a rear spoiler
like Rhode Island. If you have a long, streamlined and foam strapped on for buoyancy — surprises
system, it takes less energy to push it through the everyone by taking first, with École de Technologie
water, but once it gets going, it’s going to have a Supérieure’s lunar-lander-looking sub winning the
harder time adjusting and correcting. Some of these second place slot.
round vehicles can pretty
much turn on a dime.”
The bigger the budget,
the more intricate the One reason for the competition
vehicle, and it was obvi- ous that the Indian team is to bring together these bright
didn’t have much of one. engineers to create robotic vehicles
In fact, team member Anuj Sehgal said they that can remove human beings from
had a total budget of $1,000, which included dull, dirty, and dangerous work,
travel expenses to San such as bomb disposal or de-mining
Diego. To save money, the entire team was a shipping lane.
staying at a relative’s
apartment in the low-rent suburb of El Cajon, Despite the friendly competition and camaraderie
approximately 20 miles east of San Diego. between the teams, the potential for heavy-duty
They bought a majority of the vehicle parts after military and industrial applications is ever present
arriving, including the main body, which was a black, in the minds of both the students and the competi-
squarish, waterproof carrying case complete with tion organizers.
handle. Bilge pump motors powered four thrusters Davidson is clear that one reason for the com-
— one facing up and one facing down on each side petition is to bring together these bright engineers
of the case, giving it the appearance of a gyroscopic to create robotic vehicles that can remove human
batwing. beings from “dull, dirty, and dangerous work,” such
There wasn’t enough money in the budget for as bomb disposal or de-mining a shipping lane.
any type of camera or listening device, which And he sees the possibilities as endless. “You
means the vehicle really has no way to complete can design these things to go as deep as the ocean
any of its missions. is,” he says. “They don’t have that human factor of
No matter what the teams spent, each vehicle designing a very huge, robust, and very tight system
sports plenty of zip ties and duct tape, evidence to protect a person. You just pack it all in and you’re
of quick fixes after going through a couple of dam- not constrained by having to protect human life. The
age-inducing practice runs in the pond. If a vehicle same thing goes with the unmanned airplanes.
was having a problem with buoyancy, a handful of When you take out the cockpit and safety elements,
washers on a bolt or a plastic Coke bottle filled with you can pull all sorts of Gs and do things that no
hardened insulation foam would balance the craft. manned aircraft could ever do.”
But buoyancy is the least of their problems. Davidson adds, “If you can take people out of the
There are fried boards, water leaks, software missions that have a risk of life and put a machine in
issues, and a host of other problems. Murphy’s that same mission and something goes wrong, who
Law is in full effect today. cares? You blew up a piece of machinery.”
During the qualifying heats, most of the vehicles
have problems finishing any tasks, and only a handful complete the entire course. Larry Harmon has been covering San Diego music, strange- ness, and crime in his fanzine, Genetic Disorder, and a number
Come the finals on Sunday, the favored MIT of other publications for more than 10 years.