The knees of Billy Tong and his five BCIT second-year mechanical engineering classmate were knocking.
They'd arrived at Memorial University in St. John's, Nfld., for the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center's (MATE) remotely operated vehicle (ROV) international competition feeling a little intimidated. They surveyed the fancy ROVs from such illustrious engineering institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Arizona State, Texas A&M and the University of Waterloo.
"We thought, ‘Wow, we're in a little over our heads,' " said Tong.
They weren't. In fact, Tong, Karl Lepik, Derek Richards, Colin Martin, Colin Lockwood and Samson Suen finished ahead of all of them, coming in third overall. On top of that, they were named the best rookie team, and also won an award for the best innovative design element.
Tong was most pleased about beating out the University of Victoria, where many of BCIT's diploma graduates end up going to get their engineering degree.
"Theirs was really fancy. It had a lot of neat stuff. Fancy is nice, but it doesn't always work. The more complex isn't necessarily better," said Tong.
The BCIT ROV is an example of good things coming in small packages. The six designed the ROV - which is 11 inches wide and high, and 24 inches long - as part of their final class project. Once school was done and the marks were in, they kept coming back to the school to work on improving the machine for the competition which the department was entering for the first time.]
Time and cost were big factors. The ROV's size kept transportation costs down. It was also built for less than $2,000, with the most expensive parts being the four motor drives at a total cost of $120, said mechanical engineering instructor Taco Niet, a resident of North Burnaby's Montecito neighbourhood.
Their ROV is a concoction of cameras, electronic circuitry, metal, bilge pumps and plastic kitchen containers. That's right, containers for keeping unused cheese and leftover turkey fresh were an economic answer to how to keep water away from the electronics.
"They worked perfectly fine. We didn't need a dive box," said Tong.
When they got to Memorial for the competition, which ran June 22-24, they had three missions to perform that were designed to simulate work at the Hibernia oil fields out on the Atlantic Ocean near Newfoundland.
The first called for them to do service work on a piece of equipment from a mock oil platform. That didn't go as well as they liked. Although they got the wellhead cap off, their main camera died on them. The second camera was pointed downward for other tasks so it wasn't of any use to the team's pilot.
"Technically we were blind because all we were looking at was the bottom," said Tong.
They only earned 20 of 80 points for that mission. They got 40 of 60 for the second mission, which was to go through a pre-cut hole in ice and pick up jellyfish samples, in the form of a sponge ball, from the simulated ocean floor and algae - a ping pong ball - floating underneath the 1 1/2 inch thick ice surface. They had some buoyancy issues which meant they got the ROV to the bottom but couldn't get it back up.
They stayed up until 2 a.m. fixing the problems. Fortunately, Tong had taken along a spare bilge pump that enabled to get it back to the surface.
"There was lots of stuff that we could change but we didn't have the time," Tong said. "Without it we would have been stuck at the bottom of the tank."
With Tong at the pilot's joy stick, the ROV performed the third mission - threading a communications line through a metal loop in the ocean floor - to perfection. First of all Tong had to battle ocean undercurrents. Once that was done the team's innovative threader mechanism easily snapped the line in place. They took just six of the allotted 15 minutes to pull it off, earning them time bonuses to receive 68 out of 60.
More than half of the entries weren't able to pull the task off. Many didn't complete any missions.
"How well we did was not surprising. I was surprised at how bad so many of the others did," said Tong.
The competition was won by long-time participant Jesuit High a private prep school in Carmichael, Calif., just east of Sacramento. Second went to Eastern Edge Robotics Team, a club from Newfoundland.
"Some people [like Jesuit] bring it back over and over and build on it. As their mentor, I'm going to have them rebuild it every year," said Niet, who plans to take a team to San Diego for next year's MATE competition.
"[Using the same ROV] may be effective way to win, but it's not an effective way to learn."
Niet's so proud of his proteges, his chest hasn't receded since returning from Newfoundland. "They more than met my expectations."
The result is a good advertisement for BCIT's new engineering degree program, which starts up this September, and for the students themselves. Three team members have already taken steps to pursue their degree at UVic. The other three, including Tong, have hit the job market looking for work as mechanical technologists before going after their degree.
"[The ROV] looks great on the resume," said Tong.
© Burnaby NewsLeader