From Puerto Rico to the UP, With Underwater Robots and New Socks

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

When it began, the Puerto Rican high school students’ Undergraduate Research Expo project was about designing and building underwater robots, but it ended up also being about socks. And snowballs.

The Robotic Club Alliance, a Michigan Technological University High School Enterprise team from Puerto Rico, worked all year with a partner team at Puerto Rico’s Universidad del Turabo to design, build, test and optimize two underwater robot prototypes. Their goal: to bring their robots to Michigan Tech’s Undergraduate Research Expo on April 15. Their parents pitched in and helped them raise the funds for nine of the high school students to travel to the Houghton, Mich., campus.

The robots, made of PVC pipe and designed to hunt for and pick up underwater trash, were ready to head north when the students realized that they weren’t. None of them wears socks in their tropical home in east central Puerto Rico. Looking at last week’s Houghton weather reports, they quickly added one more expense to their travel budget: socks.

They’re glad they did, because soon after they arrived, Michigan Tech’s High School Enterprise advisor Doug Oppliger took them to a still-snowy spot near Mount Bohemia, where the teenagers saw their first snow and had their first snowball fight. 

“We are very excited to be here,” said David Colón, father of one of the high school students. “We enjoy!”  

The Robotic Club Alliance students come from two high schools: Manuela Toro Morice in Caguas and Jose Collazos in Juncos. They are Joseph Colón Villers, Jesse Villafañe Delgado, Zamil Merced Zavala, Adam M. Robles Flecha, Luis R. Valentine Zepeda, José J. González, Brenda Flores Acevedo, Yalmarie E. Rodríguez Aponte and Ambar C. Castilla. Most are in 11th grade. Their teacher-mentor, Juan Serrano, who teaches at Manuela Toro, accompanied them, as did two of the students’ parents and Raymond Borges, a Universidad del Turabo student who worked with the high schoolers on their robots. 

Borges is a member of a Puerto Rican undergraduate student Enterprise called Innovatronics, which also has ties to Michigan Tech.  Innovatronics, affiliated with Michigan Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, is exhibiting at the Undergraduate Research Expo in the Memorial Union Ballroom from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 15 too.

The high school club decided to focus on underwater robots after visiting with entrepreneurs in the business incubator of Caguas Municipality, where Manuel Toro Morice High School is located. They live in an economically disadvantaged region of Puerto Rico, but one that shows promise for technology-based economic development, so they decided that their goal was to create and promote technological solutions for marine research.

“We chose this type of research because we live on an island surrounded by water,” Serrano explained.

“There is not much of this kind of engineering in Puerto Rico, and we wanted to do something new,” added  one of the high school students, José J. González.

It took some trial and error, as most technological developments do, to design and build the underwater robots, called THROV (Trash Hunter Remotely Operated Vehicle) and EVOROV (Evolution Remotely Operated Vehicle).  First, they had to fit the device with motors and an imaging system that would work in an underwater environment.

“When an early model wouldn’t float, we learned some physics about buoyancy,” recalls Brenda Flores Acevedo, another of the high school students. 

Once they had solved the buoyancy problem, they constructed prototypes to scale. Finally, they began fine-tuning their creation to perform more functions, such as picking objects up.

The students received training in design methodology and basic electronics and physics, including learning the primciples of assembling a circuit and altering the flotation of an object.  They also studied computer modeling and programming.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.