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The Great Lakes ROV regionals return

Courtesy of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Courtesy of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

For the first time since COVID-19, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary hosted the MATE Great Lakes Regional ROV Competition on May 20.

For 16 years, students from Mid-Michigan have gathered in Alpena to face off with their underwater robots. Hence the competition incorporating “Great Lakes” in the title, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary was the first in Michigan to host the regional ROV competition. This year, students from Ohio came to participate in the competition as well.

The Marine Advancement Technology Education Center (MATE) has managed and grown the regional competition for 21 years. Starting in California, the competition has grown to over 40 regionals across the world.

The competition is open to elementary, middle school, high school and college students. Instead of being split up by age groups, regionals are categorized by skill levels -- scout, navigator and ranger. Students who won the ranger category are eligible to participate in the world championship in Longmont, Colorado in June.

Education Specialist at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Daniel Moffatt said the contest gives students hands-on experience.

“They’re pushing themselves,” he said. “And then, they’re also rubbing shoulders with those experts, right with our community college professors, or our local engineering firm people.”

In preparation for the big day, students had mentors to assist and guide them along the way, but on Saturday they were completely on their own.

Moffatt said students were required to demonstrate their robot in the Alpena County Plaza pool, give an engineering presentation, and prepare a marketing display.

Over 35 volunteers were present the day of regionals, including local diver shop owners, engineers and teachers who assisted in judging and organizing the event.

A challenge that surfaces in these competitions, Moffatt said is finding volunteers and mentors. However, the most challenging aspect is how MATE designs the competition itself. It is set up within a tight timeframe, so the mission tasks are difficult to complete and compete in. Moffat said majority of the teams are not going to complete all the tasks in time.

“Some of them are building their own computers and wiring up all their own components for the ROV,” he said. “So, it can be a very advanced or in-depth sort of complexity for these students. So, to have the right mentors and coaches to be able to guide them along -- it might be a challenge.”

This year, the competition’s mission was to show how ROV’s can play a role into harnessing offshore wind and solar energy, ensure healthy ecosystems and deploy technologies to monitor ocean conditions, according to a press release written by the sanctuary.

Moffatt said the competition aligns its mission tasks every year with one or more of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development goals.

They are modeled after real world marine technology issues and challenges. So, they really design it to push kids to the boundaries.”

The winner of the ranger category on Saturday was Underwater Research Robotics from Alpena High School, with Gahanna Lincoln High School from Ohio coming in second. The Alpena team will be attending world championship in June.