When students from Florida State University Panama City and Gulf Coast State College students teamed up to compete for the first time in the 2019 International RoboBoat Competition, they knew they were underdogs. Both schools were newcomers to the autonomous boat challenge. They didn’t have a consistent shared workspace. Many of the students hadn’t even taken an introductory programming course. Then Hurricane Michael struck.
But team Seminole Coast was not to be deterred, ultimately overcoming lost housing, newcomer status, and bureaucratic hurdles to earn the respect of the judges, a new Nvidia Jetson TX2 and $1,250 in prizes.
Toni Weaver, a mechanical engineering student at FSU’s PC campus, planted the idea of forming a team after seeing a previous competition with her husband, Dr. Joshua Weaver, an adjunct professor at FSU PC and the senior scientist for autonomy at Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division.
Through friendships and connections made in the schools’ Seminole Commodore Alliance, Weaver initially recruited about 27 students. After Hurricane Michael struck in October, however, only nine remained: FSU Panama City students Weaver, Brandon Bascetta, Marshall Sowell, Kyle Greer, Mark Hartzog, Michael Kirke and Ryan Tracy; and Gulf Coast students Sydnee O’Donnell and Landon McCoy. They enlisted the help of advisors Dr. Weaver and Dr. Damion Dunlap, previously a Navy engineer who joined the FSU mechanical engineering faculty in 2018. Advising from Gulf Coast were Alan Jeffries, the school’s engineering technology coordinator and instructor, and Kurt Morris, an engineering technician.
The team, made mostly of mechanical and electrical engineering majors, started from scratch, with very little time to get themselves ready for a competition of this caliber.
“One of our first conversations with some of these advisors was, ‘What even is autonomy?’” Toni Weaver said. “Because FSU and Gulf Coast have never done anything like this. Actually, my first conversation was with risk management: How does this work? We don’t even have labs at FSU; they’re building some right now. We didn’t even have mechanical engineering when this started.” (FSU PC added the program in 2018.)
They started doing what every smart person in this situation would do: They started Googling. They read up on previous RoboBoat challenges, studied autonomy, took crash courses in composites, learned Python, and delved into ROS (Robotic Operating System). Their advisors coached them on what to expect and how the vehicles worked. They offered mini lectures on coding and opened their labs to the students to use as workspace.
They even reached out to TechFarms after identifying a need for a soldering “how to” class, which they made happen with the help of Bill Porter, an electrical engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City. Porter and Nick Casassa, CTO of TechFarms tenant Branch Networks, later would design the elaborate lakeside network in Daytona, Florida, that allowed RoboBoat participants to interact with their autonomous boats during the competition.
The team signed up for the challenge in June 2018 and began working on a design based on RoboNation’s 2018 RoboBoat specs and challenges. The final task list was released in January 2019.
“There’s this air of uncertainty,” Dr. Dunlap said. “So teams, especially first-year teams, had to build in a lot of caveats and opportunities to be adaptable.”
By February, with 5 months left, the team began crafting its boat hull, with McCoy and Gulf Coast taking the lead.
“We were getting into the composites, so that’s one thing we volunteered,” Jeffries said. “We wanted an integral design. We didn’t want two pool noodles with Tupperware in between. We’re going down there to showcase what we can do — not just the autonomy, not just the wiring, but everything!”
McCoy volunteered to do the build, with guidance from Jeffries. They knew they wanted the boat to be as light as possible but had little idea of what would need to fit inside; Toni Weaver’s initial list included only an Nvidia Jetson TX2 autonomy supercomputer module, two thrusters, and a couple of other parts to be determined.
“We manufactured the boat hull at Gulf Coast,” said Morris, GCSC engineering technician. “We have laser cutters, so Landon (McCoy) came up with a 3D model. We sliced that model, then he went and got quarter-inch foam and built that boat out of foam, smoothed it out and then laid up manufactured carbon fiber around it and took out the foam. All at Gulf Coast.”
The boat took almost three months to manufacture. “We learned it takes a long time to order something,” Jeffries said. “If Toni came up with an idea, it had to be passed to Landon, who passed it to me, who passed to our person, who makes a delivery order, who passes it to purchasing. Five people it had to go through. That was a big deal. It took weeks to even get ordered. This idea was this was a prototype, just intended to give them something to play with. But with the hurricane and all that, we had to go down with that. It was not our intention, but we ran with it.”
The final result was a carbon fiber boat — the lightest one in the competition — crammed full with the TX2, a USB hub, a TP-Link router, three voltage converters, a Pixhawk autopilot system, a ZED camera, a LIDAR sensor, a light stack, two voltage sensors, a safety relay, a relay for the safety relay, Blue Robotics T200 thrusters and electronic speed controllers, light switches, a light switch relay, an Arduino Mega microcontroller board, a Frsky RC receiver, antennas, and four LIPO batteries.
The team then had about one month for fitting, finalizing, and testing before the competition began June 17. Divvying up the work came easily as the team really started to come together.
“We had ideas of what we wanted to do, but there was sort of a mold we fit naturally,” Hartzog said. “We found things we liked to do.”
Hartzog and Bascetta ended up as operators, with Bascetta on the RC transmitter and Hartzog operating from software and collecting data. Sowell became the electrical power expert, wiring the entire boat.
“It was a lot of application of the electrical engineering circuit theory that I’m learning,” Sowell said. “Nodal analysis was key to the development. It was incredibly important.”
Field Code Changed Tracy became the safety officer and ensured the team met all protocols. Kirke took on the state machine and visual feedback. O’Donnell helped develop some of the software and the heartbeat code. They worked up to the last minute — and beyond. The team was still coding, wiring, and replacing parts upon arrival.
It wasn’t until Thursday, June 13 — the competition began Monday, June 17 — that they could even start testing the boat using remote control at Reed Canal Park in Daytona.
“When we first started, the Pixhawk wasn’t even set up, which controls the thrusters, so we
hadn’t really ever tested that with all the other components in there,” Bascetta said. “We had some basic code set up but didn’t really know how to utilize it.”
The team ran through some RoboBoat obstacles with Bascetta operating the RC manual controls while Hartzog ran “rosbagging” — which he learned to operate on the drive to Daytona Beach — to collect visual, lidar, and navigational data.
“Before the competition, they hadn’t really been able to work with the sensors yet,” Dr. Weaver said. “While they were there, they were learning how to actually control it, they were learning how to gather the data, how to use that data, how to play that data back, collect the data they wanted out of it … Trying to do something people would take most people weeks in one night became a bit overwhelming.”
Along the way, the students made connections with other universities, vendors, and tech companies. “We got to talk to a lot of other teams and network with them, find out how they approached things, how did you do this, and so on,” O’Donnell said.
“That was the most amazing part of the competition,” Toni Weaver said. “We went to Embry-Riddle (Aeronautical University) and said, ‘Our router died,’ and they said, ‘Here, have this.’ There was a constant stream of people coming around and saying, do you need this? You can have this. There was this one team from Mexico, VantTec, that came around and said, ‘Here’s what we’ve learned. Here’s what you can do to improve next year.’”
With FSU PC and Gulf Coast still struggling to untangle the red tape that comes with combining resources, that kind of help was invaluable.
“A lot of teams that go there, even the ones who don’t have a lot of experience, they sometimes are able to get funding from the schools,” Dr. Weaver said. “When you have that, you can have tons of spares. You can have backups and figure out what went wrong later. Our students didn’t have that opportunity.”Dunlap agreed. “Most other schools in the competition have robust research programs, so they can borrow equipment, sensors and stuff, and they don’t have to buy it because their research faculty has it sitting on the shelf. We don’t have that because we’re exclusively a teaching campus.”
The administration might have not had every tool they needed to be supportive, but they did everything they could. Supporting a project like this for the first time was a learning experience for them, too.
“We all know FSU Dean Hanna personally,” Toni Weaver said. “He asked me one day, ‘How are you doing? How are your classes? And I said, ‘I want to do this competition,’ and he said, ‘What can I do to help?’ I felt like FSU’s administration really jumped in to really try to figure it out, and I felt like Gulf Coast was the same.” Hanna even called the team during the competition to check in — twice.
In the end, Seminole Coast did not qualify to compete in the autonomous challenges.
“By the end of the competition, the last day there was our attempt at autonomy,” Toni Weaver said. “Up until then it was all RC manual control. The biggest hurdle we hit at that point was how to integrate all those sensors into a functioning autonomous boat.”
On its first autonomous attempt, the thrusters “tried to drag race,” as Toni said, and the boat flipped, drenching all the electronics inside. A kayaker towed the boat to the dock, where the team began a mad scramble to put out fires, remove elements, and dump everything into tubs of rice in hopes something could be salvaged. “If we’d had another month, I think it would have been a very different story,” Toni Weaver said. Dr. Weaver agreed. “They developed a lot of autonomy while they were there,” he said. “And they tried running the autonomy, but they didn’t have a lot of water test time. Being able to go to the competition still helps them learn on their feet and accelerates their learning process toward a real-world application and visualization. They need to know what goes on the vehicle, what to expect, what they can do.”
They also know the type of challenges they will face. In one of this year’s challenges, boats had to autonomously navigate through a channel of port and starboard buoys. In another, the boats had to identify an active acoustic beacon, then park in the correct one of three docking stations. In another, the boats had to communicate with an autonomous drone — Seminole Coast never even took their drone out of its box — to identify which one of four flags to raise on a floating dock, then push the correct button to raise it.
Dr. Weaver said the challenges were complex, even to seasoned professionals. “This was not elementary,” he said. “There’s a lot of overlap between what they’re doing and what people are doing daily on base. Sensors, all of that. There aren’t answers yet to some of these questions, so everyone’s trying to figure it out all at once.”
In addition to forming a laundry list of improvements to make next year — bring spare parts, work ahead, start sooner, have a plan — the team gained invaluable experience just by attending.
“One of the things that’s very valuable, working with a lot of manufacturers, is teaching troubleshooting,” Jeffries said. “That’s very hard to teach, at least with a two-year degree. This is a way to do a lot of troubleshooting. There were a lot of things they had to deal with. These types of activities are really beneficial for that.”
“It’s like the biggest boot camp you could ever do,” Dunlap said. “Plus, this company and that company were there recruiting. Amazon? They had people there. MathWorks? They had people there.”
And some of those tech giants came bearing prizes. Seminole Coast won a $250 store credit from Blue Robotics, and Nvidia supplied them with a Jetson TX2 autonomy supercomputer module — a huge relief after the team lost its previous TX2 when the boat flipped.
“The technical director gave us the TX2,” Toni Weaver said. “He said, ‘We’re amazed at how you kept going. You had so many obstacles. How did you manage that? You guys just don’t quit.’”
The team also won Best Documentation by a Rookie Team, a static judging award that takes into account how the boat looks and the team’s website, T-shirts, video, and presentation.
Before they even returned home, Seminole Coast began prepping for next year. They’ve got new ideas, and they’re seeking new members. Teams must be at least 75 percent full-time students, with no age limit, so O’Donnell and Sowell are already recruiting interested STEM students from local high schools.
“I really want to recruit some high school students, and anybody who’s interested in the programs,” O’Donnell said. “I didn’t know anything about this coming into it. I didn’t even want to do anything with robotics, but I wanted to get involved.”
Students interested in learning more or joining the team, along with individuals or local businesses interested in supporting the team, can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TechFarms will be helping the team by offering 24-hour workshop use, storage for their boat and project, tools, spare components, and expedited parts ordering. The most invaluable benefit will be access to local autonomy and manufacturing experts through TechFarms’ collaboration network.
Toni Weaver said she is proud of what the team accomplished in its first year, especially after Hurricane Michael almost derailed the entire project. “After the storm, I received a call saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to go in 2020,’” she said. “And I said, ‘OK, great. But I’m also going to go this year.’ A lot this year was proving we could. “It’s easy to fall into the, ‘Well it’s not possible for us.’ Everybody here is capable of much more than that. People said, ‘Panama City isn’t that type of area. We aren’t technologically advanced.’ We are. We have this ability.”
For now, the team is back to the drawing board, with an extreme ambition and determination, and this time with the power of TechFarms behind them. “It’s not so much reuse, it’s organizing,” Toni Weaver said. “It’s going to be organizing the pieces we have into something cohesive.”
Although, as Hartzog pointed out, “The first step is taking it out of the rice.”