Months of meticulous testing, refining and retesting has paid off for Cornell University's Autonomous Underwater Vehicle team. With a flawless 11.5-minute run through a complex course of underwater tasks in the final round, the team's autonomous submarine earned first place in the 12th annual Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International/Office of Naval Research (AUVSI/ONR) competition in San Diego on August 2.
The win earned the team $10,000.
The Cornell undergraduates — 32 in all, 12 of whom traveled to the competition — competed against 29 other teams in the five-day competition.
The team's new vehicle, Nova, was the only sub to complete every element of the course, which included dodging barbed wire, firing torpedoes and retrieving a pinging briefcase.
"We had a very, very reliable system from day one," said team leader Erin Fischell.
That reliability came from work that started with planning and designing last fall, then moved into hours upon hours of pool testing starting May 10. "We had pool tests nearly every day this summer, getting practice and identifying the problems we would encounter," she said.
The team also benefited from a strong memory. "[The Cornell] team has been doing this 10 years," Fischell said, and each year's team has paid particular attention to lessons learned by predecessors.
That attention paid off at the competition. "We brought backups for every part we made ourselves, but we never had to use any of them," Fischell said. "We made this vehicle reliable and usable enough that we never had to open it up.
"We had an amazing team this year," she added. "Everyone did wonderfully. I'm very proud of what we did."
In the coming year, the team will prepare for next year's competition, test new ideas, recruit new members and improve its infrastructure.
The team is already working on new challenges, including possibly building a vehicle to search for a shipwreck in Cayuga Lake, at the request of the Ithaca/Tompkins Convention and Visitors Bureau. Cornell is located at the southern end of Cayuga Lake.
In its 10 years in the AUVSI/ONR competition, the Cornell team has earned several wins (most recently in 2003) and runner-up prizes, including first place in the design and implementation award for six consecutive years. The team has made it to the finals nine times; last year's entry came in seventh overall.