Underwater Robot

 Designing and Building a Remotely Operated Vehicle for NASA's International ROV Competition

As a student engineer, I had the opportunity to join a team of 12 engineers to design and build a ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) for an international ROV competition, organised by MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) and NASA. ROVs are subsea robots used across industries such as oil and gas and marine exploration.

Our team progressed through the UK national competition to the international finals, held at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston and placed in the top third of all winning teams. The competition brief, set by NASA, was to design a ROV capable of exploring the waters of planets and moons in our solar system. This translated into subsea tasks including measuring distance, depth and temperature; collecting objects from the seabed; and manoeuvring underwater.

The ROV was an end-to-end engineering project, combining software and controls; electronics systems; mechanical hardware; and manufacturing. A key challenge was new competition rules which awarded significant points for meeting a diametric size constraint and reducing mass which represented the constraints associated with the ROV's space mission.

In line with these weighted points, I proposed we design a spherical frame and have the ROV's tools be retractable. A spherical structure would allow the ROV to meet the size constraint in all directions and maximise volume against the diameter. Retractable tooling enabled the ROV to meet its size limit at the beginning of the run (i.e. tools are tucked into the ROV's internal space), before being deployed to make use of an expanded volume. This was especially useful for the motors which could be deployed to a position outside the ROV's frame, providing greater torque around the CoM and less flow disturbance. Similarly, the retractable gripper, which was used to to pick up objects, was able to be positioned forward or downward allowing us to double up its use for different tasks.

Holes in the laser-cut acrylic frame allowed components to be added modularly using standard PVC pipe, including the retractable motors, cameras, tooling, and the pneumatically-actuated gripper. This modular and retractable approach allowed for more testing and refinement pre-competition, and flexibility for future missions.

Participating in this competition was a valuable experience as it allowed me to apply my engineering skills to a real-world problem and work with the team to design and build a functional ROV. It also provided an opportunity to understand the constraints and opportunities of designing technical products, and the importance of modularity and flexibility in engineering design.