Underwater robotics team helps students succeed

October 27, 2022

Mizzou Underwater Robotics Foundation members
Mizzou Underwater Robotics Foundation members

At Mizzou Engineering, robots are programmed to navigate spaces, complete missions and even dance at halftime. Now, they can swim, too. Meet Jelly, the underwater submarine built by members of the Mizzou Underwater Robotics Foundation, or Mizzou SURF.

Founded in 2018, SURF programs Jelly to compete annually in an underwater obstacle course at the RoboSub Competition. Team members work in three project groups to make sure Jelly can do tasks such as going through a gate, tracking lines with a camera or shooting a torpedo through a hoop – all while submerged underwater.

“I’m glad I found my club,” said Matt Cira, SURF co-president. “The actual application of my knowledge from class is awesome.”

Team members work in project groups based on interests: computer science and control systems, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. Weekly meetings are a time for the team to come together, see where groups are at and work on upgrading the submarine.

Jelly, the current Mizzou Underwater Robotics Foundation robot
Jelly the robot

This year, SURF is looking to build another submarine to join Jelly in the water.

“We feel like we’ve reached limitations with our current robot,” Cira said. “If we can, we will submit two submarines for the competition next year. Teams can get extra points for having two subs communicate.”

Teams also get points at competition for creating a design report, a design presentation and a website about their submarines, in addition to weight and style. Most points are awarded for each obstacle or event that the submarine successfully completes.

“Last year we didn’t have a lot of time to do waterproof testing, so we spent a lot of time at competition doing that,” said Amelia Truong, SURF secretary and electrical engineering student. “Because we hadn’t done water testing, we also hadn’t tested our stabilization or movement software. We spent a lot of time with one person in the water with the sub just trying to get the sub to work.”

Even with these obstacles, Mizzou SURF was able to qualify and make it to the semifinals of the annual competition.

“It was a really big accomplishment for us seeing as we hadn’t put the sub in the water for real that year,” Truong said.

Building and testing the underwater robot is more than just fun: it’s a hands-on learning experience for students that helps them stay engaged with what they’re learning in class. It also provides the opportunity to learn from other students and solve problems as a team.

“I came into SURF knowing nothing, I was so scared of being a burden to the team,” Truong said. “But the electrical group lead taught me everything, walked me through everything I needed to know. I’m still learning things, and it’s so much fun.”

Even students not majoring in engineering can find a place within Mizzou SURF. Rachel Howey is a microbiology major who does social media for the team.

“Whether you’re helping with the business side of the org or doing social media, there’s a spot for any major,” she said. “You can get a taste of what engineers do.”

Cira echoed the importance of finding a student organization to fit your interests across multiple aspects of life.

“Go get your experience, go build your network, go make new friends,” he said. “I think it’s important to have applied the skills you have from class, especially when you start applying for jobs. Everybody at the career fair asks me about what I do on the team.”

“Even if you are a freshman or sophomore, just join,” Cira said. “We’ll teach you what you need to know.”

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