Thales supports CalTech RoboSub Team

Autonomous technologies provide militaries with strategic and operational advantages during critical operations. These technologies help reduce the risk to life when operating in hostile environments, provide extended surveillance and enhance forward operations. As such, increased autonomy is becoming a fundamental feature of tomorrow’s militaries and is a key factor driving their digital transformations.

Recently, a Thales sponsored team of engineering students from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) took part in RoboSub, an international robotics competition attracting more than 40 university teams from around the world. RoboSub is organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Foundation and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research. The challenge, which takes place annually in San Diego, CA, asks teams to design and build autonomous underwater vehicles that support naval missions. 

The CalTech robotics team regularly competes in RoboSub and with three past consecutive appearances won this year’s contest. Their first entry in 2014 landed them in seventh place, and last year they finished fourth.
Thales Group - Caltech RoboSub iamge
This year, the team’s robot submarine, “Dory,” named after a “Finding Nemo” character, successfully navigated the obstacle course, where it deliberately touched buoys, fired torpedoes at targets and rescued an object underwater – all autonomously.

“Not only was Caltech’s entry widely acclaimed as the most beautiful robot in the competition, it performed impressive feats of autonomy in the underwater race course, including a double barrel roll through the ‘style points’ navigation gate,” said faculty advisor Joel Burdick, the Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at CalTech.

Team scores are based on their system’s ability to successfully navigate the underwater obstacle course, overall design, technical paper and presentation to a panel of judges.

“Unmanned systems have a huge number of potential missions […] but technology, from artificial intelligence to algorithms, is still an obstacle to achieving the performance levels required. Progress is being made and you can easily imagine teams of underwater vehicles working in tandem,” explains Thomas Reydellet[1], strategic studies and prospective director at Thales.

The CalTech team credits collaboration and teamwork as leading factors in their success. Edward Fouad, the team lead, along with Jake Larson, fundraising and outreach, Tyler Okamoto, project manager, and Kushal Agarwal, Torkom Pailevanian, Frank Zhou and Jeffrey Orenstein each responsible for individual teams including programming, electrical and mechanical teams, helped direct nearly 60 student-members, with a core group of about 20 students committed to the competition.

“The increased complexity of Dory compared to Crush, [a previous year’s vehicle], led to a diversification in the number of subsystems on the vehicle, which made it more important to have many people working on parallel projects,” said Larson. “Since the electrical, mechanical and software teams are co-dependent, it was paramount that the order of accomplishing tasks was planned out in advance to minimize future delays.”

In order to manufacture the vehicle the team even had to develop a mini supply chain. This is where the sponsor’s role was crucial. “Thales is, and now has been for the past two years, our top corporate sponsor,” said Larson. “Our new vehicle ran the highest budget ever; a price tag that incorporates re-purposed hardware from previous vehicles as well as the array of new sensors and cameras.”

Using their past experiences to refine their design the team builds a new submarine from scratch every year. Dory is the team’s third attempt at combining coding, engineering and manufacturing, to create a fully autonomous underwater vehicle able to seek out underwater targets. This year’s design includes an intricate aluminium hull, a GoPro camera on a gimbal and a number of instruments for detecting sounds, images and depth.

Dory’s design features a major system upgrade in the form of a wide-view camera protected in a clear plastic bubble with two axes of rotation. This feature allows the submarine to spot targets without changing orientation. Other features of Dory include a robotic arm to perform underwater functions and the ability to deploy torpedoes.
[1]Unmanned And Ready Vehicles” by Christian Doherty, in Innovation Magazine #5: