Weather, surf conditions delay launch until May

SurfBot launch at Del Monte BeachStudents in Dr. Steve Moore’s underwater robotics class in the fall of 2010 didn’t kick back over the winter break last January.

Instead, they volunteered to continue working on a project that wasn’t quite finished when the semester ended. The work – some of which took place in Professor Moore’s cluttered garage amid tools, electronic and mechanical parts and testing equipment – extended into the spring semester.

The class was working on SurfBot – an 8-foot Styrofoam surfboard to which two boogie boards and a pair of propellers are attached, as well as a metal box containing cameras, batteries, computers and electronics. Riding atop it all is a small stuffed otter, CSU Monterey Bay’s mascot.

After several surf- and weather-related delays, SurfBot was finally launched on May 8. It successfully completed its (revised) mission – to seek out and find a sunken sailboat and amphibious vehicle in approximately 27 feet of water off Del Monte Beach in Monterey.

"In spite of its name, it's not designed to surf," Dr. Moore said. "But it's the only surfboard I know that can swim and navigate all by itself!"

Alin Gonzalez works on the computer that drives the robotSurfBot finds its way with the help of a GPS unit and a pair of tiny computers. A video camera mounted on the robot beams live images back to shore. If the robot gets into trouble, the students can override its automatic navigation and use remote control to steer it from shore. If that fails, students would use a kayak to rescue the bot. After all, it's worth about $3,000.

The challenge given to the students was to build a robot that could map the depth and contours of the upper Carmel Submarine Canyon, a side branch of the famous Monterey Canyon.

But, according to Dr. Moore, "that was just an excuse to make learning more fun and effective." Carmel Canyon has already been mapped accurately by CSUMB's Seafloor Mapping Lab, which uses much more sophisticated technology to do the job. Dr. Moore planned to use those maps to check the accuracy of the students' results and assign their grades accordingly.

The 17 students in the class were mostly biology and environmental science, technology and policy students; one was studying computer science.

Dr. Moore said that it’s unusual for biology students to take this kind of class. Normally, robotics this advanced would be taught in an engineering program.

Alin Gonzlez, a biology major from San Francisco, was attracted to the class because she thinks it will help her as she continues her education.

“I learned the basics of software,” she said. “I think I could do smaller projects on my own now, and that will help me do research in grad school.” She has applied to Texas A&M’s Fisheries Management program.

The Cortland Jordan, an environmental science, technology and policy student from Lake Elsinore, was also attracted to the possibility of acquiring skills that will help him pursue a graduate degree in applied technology for ecology at Oregon State.

“. . . Many of us want to do this kind of thing in graduate school. We got caught up in this project,” he said. “We were in the lab every Thursday night for four hours. We ate pizza and built robots.

“The best part of this: In marine biology, it’s very competitive. This skill will give me a boost.”

On Jan. 29, the students’ skills were put to the test as SurfBot was taken for a test drive at Moss Landing Harbor.

“We got some valuable vehicle performance data and we learned some useful things that will improve the success of the mapping we hope to do when the weather and ocean conditions cooperate,” Dr. Moore said at the time.

With the end of the spring semester looming, the right conditions still hadn't materialized. That resulted in a change of location and a revised mission.

Dr. Moore joined the faculty even before the university opened its doors to students in the fall of 1995. He teaches an eclectic mix of biology, physics and nature photography courses and runs the Ecosystem Electronics Lab (EEL), the university’s own scientific research and development team.

He and his students – including those in the robotics class – invent out of necessity, developing new research tools because they don’t yet exist or alternatives are cost-prohibitive. The result: usable technologies that allow scientists and students to better understand our world.

And, maybe have some fun while “learning a bunch of stuff,” as Dr. Moore says.

To learn more about the Science and Environmental Policy program, click here.