Cyclone RoboSub's Prototype AUV
Cyclone RoboSub's Prototype AUV (Courtesy of Peter Webster)

Engineering Students Take the Plunge with New Underwater Robotics Team

Members of the recently created club, Cyclone RoboSub or CRS, at the University of California, Davis, work together to engineer an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV — a submarine that operates without a human controlling it — to compete in the international RoboSub competition in August. Over 40 teams from around the world will face off, and for the first time, UC Davis will be represented amongst them. 

The Competition 

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Cyclone RoboSub is a student-run robotics team dedicated to inspiring creativity and ingenuity in all students through a hands-on collaborative environment focused on autonomous underwater vehicle design.

The RoboSub competition, held this year in Irvine, California, evaluates submersible robots capable of interacting with underwater objects in the absence of human management. Student teams will confront current obstacles in underwater maritime robotics such as oceanographic exploration, mapping and detection, and manipulation of objects. 

AUVs will be responsible for picking up and placing objects in different locations, firing torpedoes into targets, and surfacing in particular locations. Teams must also demonstrate their AUVs maneuverability through spins and barrel rolls. 

"In our case, it's recognizing images with onboard cameras, and then making its own estimates of where it is and what it needs to do," explained Peter Webster, a second-year mechanical engineering major and co-founder of CRS. 

An AUV has to navigate without human help, and this autonomous element is a challenge.  

"If you want more freedom, then it's going to have to do everything on its own," Webster said. 

"It has to make active decisions when we're not around," the other co-founder, second-year mechanical engineering major, Jason Pieck, said. 

A Community Built Around Robotics 

As high school students, Pieck and Webster competed in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology robotics competition. They were inspired to create similar opportunities for hands-on experience with robotics at UC Davis.  

They established Cyclone RoboSub in May 2023.  

"With this being Cyclone RoboSub's first year, nothing is guaranteed and no one has laid out a path for us to follow," Webster added. 

CRS encourages students interested in robotics to join with any level of experience — regardless of year or major. Webster and Pieck are focused on facilitating opportunities for members to collaborate and explore engineering solutions. 

"Our dream member is someone who comes in with a motivation to learn," Pieck shared. "If they come in knowing that they want to do something but they just don't know how, we will 100% support them through that process." 

Their aspiration for CRS is not only to give students a place to get hands-on practice with the engineering process of bringing an idea to life, but to create a community of fellow students passionate about robotics.  

Members of Cyclone RoboSub stand outside of ESDC at UC Davis
Cyclone RoboSub club members stand outside the Diane Bryant Engineering Student Design Center. Standing on the far right are co-founders Peter Webster (upper) and Jason Pieck (lower). (Courtesy of Peter Webster)

"A big focus for us is creating an environment where you don't just come and sit down and do your work," Pieck said. "We want you to come, engage with the other members and ask questions. 'What is everyone else doing?' 'Oh, you're doing that?' 'What if we did it like this?'" 

"That's where the best ideas come from, and that's also where people have the most fun," he added. 

"We all have different backgrounds, but we're coming together and creating something that none of us could have done on our own," Webster said. 

On Saturdays, the 20-30 members of CRS gather to prepare for their first competition in August. With the advanced resources at the newly-renovated Diane Bryant Engineering Student Design Center supporting the development of CRS's ideas, it's up to the students to bring their vision to life. 

Webster expressed faith and excitement for all that is to come.  

"It's been inspiring to watch as our dream of creating a thriving community of UC Davis students interested in robotics engineering is finally taking shape and evolving into something better than we ever could have imagined!" 

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