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Robotics an exciting ride - Engineering students take on the world

A group of AMC students have embraced autonomous technology and plan to develop robotic surface vessels, aerial drones and underwater vehicles for coastal surveying

AMCAT team members
Shared vision: AMCAT team members, from left, Reuben Kent,
Isak Bowden Floyd, Mitchell Pearson, Samuel Smith and Curtis Armstrong
with a model of the hydrofoil catamaran they designed.

By Nicole Mayne

A group of engineering students at the Australian Maritime College share a futuristic vision to send robots into space to explore planetary lakes.

The potential uses for these robots on Earth are also limitless, including sending fleets of drones to provide quick and safe response to natural disasters and creating a "wired ocean" that provides early notice of extraordinary underwater events.

The students have formed their own society dedicated to exploring the next generation of autonomous technologies and have taken their purpose-built robots around the world to compete in prestigious events. Australian Maritime College Autonomous Technologies Society (AMCAT) president James Keane said their fleet included a hydrofoil catamaran, seed-planting vehicle, octocopter, hovercraft and autonomous surface vessel. "The next generation of maritime engineers is nerdishly excited about the applications for autonomous robots. AMCAT is a testament to what's achievable when you combine proactive undergraduates with the opportunities presented at a world-class college and industry experts such as Dr Alexander Forrest as mentors," he said.

"The next generation of maritime engineers is nerdishly excited about robots."

"If this is what we're doing at an undergraduate level, then it doesn't take much to realise that what's going on at a postgraduate research level is pretty amazing. Our long-term goal is to develop a fleet of autonomous surface vessels, aerial drones and underwater vehicles for coastal surveying and other applications."

The team raced their radio-controlled hydrofoil catamaran in the inaugural HYDROcontest on the banks of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in July, vying for the title of "fastest and most energy-efficient hydrofoil boat" against university students from Switzerland, France, Brazil, Colombia, Australia and the Netherlands.

Despite a series of setbacks including a fire, lost rudder and puncture-causing collision, they came home with two awards – taking out second place in the endurance race category and winning the best technology award in the lightweight boat division.

Back in Australia, an AMCAT robot programmed to complete a seed-planting mission achieved a top-eight finish against competitors from Australian and New Zealand universities at the National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition in Sydney.

Team leader Fletcher Thompson said taking part in the competition enabled the students to build their knowledge in the field of decision-making control – a robotics topic not usually covered in their maritime engineering degrees.

The octocopter, effectively a helicopter with eight arms and multiple rotating propellers, is kitted out with camera capability and a live video feed that can be linked to a computer or screen.

Designer Zac Pullen said the ultimate goal was to develop a stable and reliable platform for survey work and communication that could be used with the surface vessel being developed for the Maritime RobotX Challenge in Singapore. This major competition is next on the cards for the AMCAT team, who have joined forces with Flinders University to battle it out for $100,000 in prize money against students from the US, Singapore, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

The teams each received an unpowered version of the 16-foot Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel from the US Office of Naval Research and a grant to build a battery-powered propulsion system and sensors. The robot will be tested on a series of tasks including navigation and control, obstacle avoidance, docking and target identification.