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Villanova Engineers Place Second in International Competition

Engineering students bring home the silver medal for their “RoboBoat” design

Villanova engineers with SeaCat

VILLANOVA, Pa. – A team of engineers from the Villanova University College of Engineering placed second in the 2012 RoboBoat Competition, an international robotics challenge sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR). Nineteen teams participated in the event, including those from the U.S. Naval Academy, Virginia Tech and universities in India, Indonesia and Taiwan.

Drawing on their respective areas of study, ranging from signal processing to robotics, the Villanova Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) team designed and built an ASV to participate in the competition, which was held in Virginia Beach, Va.

Team members included undergraduate students Joseph Denny ’13, Nicholas DiLeo ’13, Lester “Jim” McMackin ’13, Michael Weber '13, and Alexander Poultney ’14; recent alumnus Ryan Holihan ’12 COE; and graduate students Shahriar Khan ’13 and Ralph Sullivan ’13.

“The thing that separates the Villanova ASV team from the rest is that the major contributors in our group have always been the undergraduates,” said Khan ’11 COE, a second-year graduate student who has been on the team since his junior year at the University. “Almost all of the other colleges in the competition have graduate students and doctoral candidates working on the boat as a part of their theses. At Villanova, the undergraduates contribute new ideas and approaches that really fuel the project.”

Villanova’s ASV, a new catamaran style boat which the team named SeaCat, completed a set of core tasks essential for the competition, including autonomously navigating a buoy course and extinguishing a simulated fire. The new vessel weighed less and navigated more effectively than last year’s model, which earned 14th place out of 15 teams.

“After studying the results of the 2011 competition, we chose to go with newly designed mechanical and electrical hardware. In retrospect, a complete redesign was the right decision to make,” said C. Nataraj, PhD, Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the team’s adviser. “The students worked very hard and long. I’m proud of them.”

In addition to a full course load, Villanova’s ASV team members use this as an opportunity to apply their classroom knowledge in preparation for careers in engineering.

“Although it’s extra work, it’s also very rewarding,” said DiLeo, team captain and a senior mechanical engineering student. “Being a part of this team helped me develop many intangible skills that cannot easily be taught. Everyone put in as much time as they could in order to ensure that we would have a competitive chance at RoboBoat 2012.”

Villanova has participated in the RoboBoat Competition since its inaugural year in 2008. The project was supported by the Office of Naval Research, which also funds related theoretical studies on unmanned vehicles at Villanova’s Center for Nonlinear Dynamics and Control. The team’s second-place victory earned the College of Engineering a $5,000 prize.

Along with creating the prize-winning ASV, the team was required to submit a journal paper, presentation, video and website for evaluation by the judges. Development and design for the project began in the summer of 2011; the team worked throughout the summer and the 2011-2012 academic year to prepare for the competition.

“We are all really delighted with what we have achieved this year with SeaCat,” said Joseph Denny, a senior mechanical engineering student. “We have shown what we can accomplish when we start out in the right direction. This year was great, but next year we are going for the gold.”

About RoboBoat: The goal of the RoboBoat Competition is to provide an opportunity for students to experience the challenges of and develop skills in system engineering by accomplishing realistic missions with autonomous vehicles in the maritime environment and to foster ties between young engineers and the organizations developing Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) technologies. The competition consists of two parts, design and performance. Students are tasked with developing an innovative system concept for their ASV to complete the assigned mission tasks. Rigorous engineering, well-crafted construction and a committed team also are essential.

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's five colleges – the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing and the Villanova University School of Law. As students grow intellectually, Villanova prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them.