CU Boulder students make splash in national ‘RoboBoat’ competition
CU Boulder students make splash in national ‘RoboBoat’ competition

Three students from the University of Colorado Boulder found themselves far from home earlier this summer as they watched their 5-foot-long fully autonomous boat navigate through the water on its own volition for the 2019 International RoboBoat Competition at South Daytona, Fla.

CU Boulder’s small team, derived from its new RoboBoat club, designed, built, and entered its 40-pound boat in a worldwide annual robotics contest that took place June 17 through 23. The 12th annual competition, hosted by RoboNation, presented an opportunity for students to put the abilities of their autonomous surface vehicles to the test with open water challenges meant to imitate real-world boating operations.

The team, comprised of computer science sophomore and club leader Earl Potters, Andrew Zhu in electrical engineering and Jack Bigiel in mechanical engineering, was entirely new to the field, none having participated in a RoboBoat competition before.

CU Boulder’s squad was one of 13 that set their boats free in South Daytona’s Reed Canal Park, competing alongside student teams which traveled from as far as Egypt, Indonesia, and Mexico. High school, undergraduate, and graduate students were eligible to participate in the competition.

Although Boulder’s team didn’t advance to the competition’s finals, Potters said he was surprised at their team’s nonetheless successful outcome, especially given that the team only had spring semester to build and prepare.

“We were about to give up because we had nothing and we hadn’t tested our boat a single time. We were the least prepared team and we still somehow got on the board,” he said. “I think what really benefited us was the environment of getting each other, problem solving, and having some helping hands.”

Although CU Boulder’s experience and number of team members paled in comparison to the other contestants, their RoboBoat’s simple system gave them an advantage in the long run.

“The biggest mistake that people make is that they try too much and things break and it’s very hard to solve if it is too complex,” Potters said. “Ours were so simple, when something broke, it was fairly easy to fix or replace.”

The team prepared for the competition with its wood and carbon fiber boat by testing it for brief periods in Boulder Reservoir. The boat, the frame of which was donated to the club, is operated only by use of two thrusters since the boat cannot be manually controlled by the team once the Roboboat’s journey is underway.

The overall scoring of the event was based on the boat’s ability to navigate and race through the aquatic obstacle course along with the boat’s design, performance, uniqueness, innovation, and the caliber of the engineering.

With the competition in South Daytona behind them, the RoboBoat club is already looking forward to next year’s competition.

“For next year, my dream outcome is that we have something working that we tested. It doesn’t have to be super complex,” Potters said. “The process of making that instead of actually winning is more important to me.”