Alvin Ly isn’t only building robots, he’s helping build the future. Alongside his team, he’s created a machine ripped straight from the pages of science-fiction — one that can swim and think for itself.
Ly and his team work on space-age robotic technologies and artificial intelligence as part of the Autonomous Robotic Vehicle Project (ARVP). The engineering student group designed autonomous — or self-thinking — robots to compete internationally since the late 90s.
Since 2007, the project focused on submersibles, which posed many challenges. Each year, the students in ARVP design a functional, underwater robot to compete in San Diego for an event called RoboSub. The group tweaks designs from previous years for various challenges they face in the competition pool. All tasks must be completed in a 20-minute time frame.
“I believe they set up the competition so that it’s near impossible to complete all of them,” Ly said.
During the narrow timeframe, the team faces manipulation, maneuvering and sensing tasks as their robot maneuvers through an underwater obstacle course. Different tasks are worth more or less points depending on difficulty. The robot attempts to pass through gates, as well as touch, move and find objects using an interplay of computer algorithms, cameras and sonar.
All electronics need to be waterproofed, which is only the beginning for Ly. As a student group, the ARVP cannot turn to a corporate-sized budget or long list of industry consultants for a solution. Instead, students have to study their way to success.
“For the past three years we haven’t found a single leak,” Ly said. “That’s really impressive considering we’re just students. We weren’t formally taught how to seal it, the know-how came from previous generations of ARVP members. As students we have to take the initiative, go and search online and learn from industry to figure out how to do this crazy thing.”
Ly and his team put an emphasis on the highest-reward-for-effort tasks, often forgoing ones that may be more enjoyable but worth fewer points. Ly’s team may not complete the BattleBots-esque torpedo challenge in which the submersible must fire two projectiles through different sized squares. Instead, the team opts for finishing the sonar detection task — where the robot detects and locates an underwater pinger and surfaces through a hoop above.
“The biggest challenge at the competition is efficiency,” Ly said. “That’s a very engineering answer, but it’s true. Our goal is to have our effort-to-points ratio as low as possible. It’s all about how many points we can get in the short amount of time.”
The international competition draws teams from Canada, the United States, Europe, China, Russia and Singapore. Last year, the U of A’s team finished eighth out of 40 teams and was crowned best Canadian team. This year, Ly hopes to make the top five.
“It’s the best,” he said. “You’ve been working late for six, seven days straight with less than four hours of sleep a night and then all of a suddenly you’re finished and you get to celebrate with all the people you’ve been working with and competing against. It’s a brotherhood (of engineers and scientists) … it’s awesome competing and partying with them … we’re are all willing to share and learn together.”
Amidst relentless exams and assignments, six and seven class course-loads and capstone projects, the group’s members draw on something more than the thrill of competition: true passion for their trade.
“The stereotypes about engineers working just to be rich, that’s not what’s happening (here),” Ly said. “We are all students and do it because (we) love it, (we) have a passion for solving real world problems and finding working solutions that can make society better.”