UM::Autonomy’s Phoenix navigates into a fourth place finish at the 2024 RoboBoat competition

Collaboration and problem solving led the UM::Autonomy RoboBoat team to fourth place in the automated tasks and first place in the design documentation competition.
10 UM::Autonomy members wearing blue and white team shirts pose with their competition boat in front of a white event tent. Photo courtesy of UM::Autonomy.
The 2024 UM::Autonomy team poses with The Phoenix, their competition boat.

From the beach in Nathan Benderson Park, Florida, the 2024 UM::Autonomy RoboBoat team watched The Phoenix rise to fourth place in its second year of competition, above all other U.S. teams. The boat navigated through a course of floating buoys, glided into a marked docking station, and sprayed water at a target––as the team’s many months of hard work paid off.

“Typically, we prioritize a lot of our navigational skills, like path finding and object detection, over more advanced capabilities,” explained Asheya Naik, 2024 UM::Autonomy president. “Every year we’re presented with a new set of rules and some changes to the challenges.”

Each year, since 2007, a team of undergraduates from across U-M builds an autonomous boat to compete in a set of themed RoboBoat challenges. This year’s theme was “Ducks Overboard,” a nod to the Friendly Floatees event of 1992, when 28,800 floating rubber toys spilled from a shipping container into the ocean. Challenges included hitting an image of a duck with water and dropping objects into catch basins nicknamed “duck nests” and “beaver nests.”

The UM::Autonomy competition boat floats in a lake, in front of an image of a duck and several floating buoys. In the background, a like of leafy trees can be seen against the sky.
The Phoenix is visible in the water with an image of a duck in the background. Photo courtesy of UM::Autonomy.

In addition to these automated tasks, there are always design documentation requirements including a technical paper, a ten-minute presentation, a team video, and a website. UM::Autonomy was awarded first place in the design documentation aspect of the competition, illustrating their ability to communicate the complex details, motivation, and strategy behind their design to a broad audience of judges and attendees.

When the UM::Autonomy team receives the RoboBoat instructions, several months in advance of the competition, they determine a timeline and budget to determine the scope of the project ahead. The work is divided between several groups focusing on artificial intelligence, electrical components, mechanical components, and advanced capabilities (such as picking up and dropping objects). They also have a team of students handling the important business and administrative duties required to coordinate over 60 diverse members, multiple funding sources, and cross-country travel.

Due to a shortened timeline from the announcement to the 2024 competition, the team decided to continue improving on the previous year’s design, rather than starting from scratch.

Two men stand on either side of the competition boat, which is loaded onto a cart on the beach. A judge wearing a sun hat looks at the boat.
A judge inspects the boat as Aayush Shah and Asheya Naik get ready to load it into the water. Photo courtesy of UM::Autonomy.

On the electrical team, led by electrical engineering undergraduate Aayush Shah, simplifying and overhauling the existing system required students to learn a new set of skills. They opted to use printed circuit boards (PCBs) in their design, which hadn’t been employed by the team in several years.

“We decided to use PCBs to make our electronics box smaller, since we had problems with the box and connections disconnecting the year before,” said Shah. “It was something I wanted to learn more about, and one of our members was well-versed in making PCBs already.”

“We’re continuously pushing for things to be more and more integrated,” added Eeshwar Krishnan, electrical team member, “So we’re learning a lot more about how we can take all these discrete subsystems that we used to buy and move them together, in house. We’re learning how to manufacture, test, and do consistent repeatability analysis of electrical systems that we’ve never really touched before––that we didn’t have any reason to touch before.”

Students can learn these skills by seeking out additional classes and meetings with professors, but in practice they often learn from more experienced team members.

“After you’ve spent like a year on the team, you’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work, and that’s really helpful,” said Lani Quach, AI team member and incoming vice president. “In the process of starting from the beginning to gaining a leadership role, you can help lead new students and continue building on these foundations of learning.”

The diversity of the UM::Autonomy team also creates opportunities for the members to learn from their peers, bringing together expertise from students in naval architecture, electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), industrial and operations engineering (IOE), the business school, and more.

17 students stand on a long dock into the lake, with their backs to the camera, watching their boats drive away into the water.
RoboBoat teams stand on the dock and watch their boats take off. Photo courtesy of UM::Autonomy.

“This club is a very great place to learn since we like to implement new and fun ideas that come from anyone,” Shah said. “I often do lots of research or talk to professors to help complete what we want to do.”

Although each member of the team may have a different educational background and expertise to offer, the collaborative and innovative spirit of the team means that no one is left out. Each member can contribute as much or as little as they’d like.

“We get a lot of insight into the whole bring-up process, and everyone kind of gets their own say into what ends up on the boat––that’s honestly pretty exciting to be able to take ownership of something from beginning to end,” said Krishnan.

Two men unload their competition boat into the water from a cart. Several floating buoys are seen in the distance.
The back of the boat is visible as Aayush Shah and Asheya Naik load it into the water. Photo courtesy of UM::Autonomy.

Although students from varying programs on campus may collaborate throughout the year, the competition offers an additional opportunity to network and bond. Members of the team live together, preparing for the competition and solving problems with the boat. They also meet and spend time with other teams, allowing them to learn about campus life at other schools and share knowledge. Interactions with other teams, participants, and judges provide long-lasting career connections for UM::Autonomy members.

Three competition boats float side-by-side in the lake, in front of several buoys and floating items for the competition tasks.
UM::Autonomy’s boat, The Phoenix (L) floats next to boats from other teams. Photo courtesy of UM::Autonomy.

“UM::Autonomy is very interdisciplinary in a way that I have yet to see in a lot of other student teams or opportunities,” said Naik. “And there was never any sort of barrier to entry, so the whole atmosphere of being on the team was very nice, friendly, and exploratory. I think that’s really helped mold me in engineering.”

UM::Autonomy continues to prioritize this culture of inclusion, collaboration, and encouragement over each year, as they strive to land back in first place.

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