After beating out the likes of Linn-Benton Community College and Oregon State University in Newport, Clatsop Community College is the only collegiate team in the state heading to NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston for Marine Advanced Technology Education’s underwater robotics competition.
The college’s team, nicknamed SQUAD (Specialized TasQ-force for Underwater Advanced Development), will go up against 31 other mostly research universities from 12 states and 10 countries to see who has the best submersible robot.
Leading the group is CEO and mathematics major Georges Oates Larsen, who has put in more than 1,500 hours designing Magnificus “Maggie” Praesegmen (Latin for Magnificent Scrap), the college’s most advanced robot ever. The robot will have to complete an underwater obstacle course transitioning an oil rig into an artificial reef.
Helping Larsen are students Darby Cullen, the vice president of research and design; Sam Diare, the vice president of manufacturing; and L Goyena, the vice president of publicity.
The team has spent $1,300 building Maggie, while Cullen said some of their competition can spend $20,000 or more on their robots. The team has subsisted largely on donations, scavenged parts from previous robots and the personal credit card of physics instructor Pat Keefe, who oversees what he said is the most advanced robotics team the college has ever fielded.
“They’re totally self-motivated,” he said. “I try to squelch them, because I can see my credit card maxing out.”
Keefe buys a lot of the parts, and said he charged the airfare for the group to his credit card. He said the team needs about $1,000 in donations to recoup what he spent on airfare, and could spend up to $500 more on materials for Maggie, which still needs pressure sensors and an operable claw for the competition.
Keefe was around in 2006, the first year the college qualified for internationals, also in Houston, and placed fourth for their class and in the top 10 over the next four years. He said former maritime instructor Dennis Degner introduced him to the program and mentored the team the first year.
The formation of the current team started when Larsen, a homeschooler, came to the college for an orientation.
“I saw (Larsen) and said ‘that kid’s mine,’” Keefe joked.
By the end of orientation, Larsen was helping Keefe untangle a tether to the old underwater robot. Larsen reconnected with Diare, a childhood friend, at a volunteer event creating electric cars for children with disabilities and talked him into joining.
Cullen, who is helping Larsen build another robot to search for shipwrecks off the Oregon Coast with the Maritime Archaeological Society, said he met her in an engineering class, saw her manufacturing abilities and said he needed someone competent to build props. Goyena was friends with Cullen, squeezed her way into the team’s weekly meetings and has taken charge of the group’s fundraising.
Only Diare is returning next year, while Larsen heads to Portland State University to study theoretical mathematics. Goyena and Cullen are attending Oregon State University to study pharmacology and mechanical engineering, respectively.
The team estimates more than 2,300 hours spent between them designing Maggie, fundraising and readying for the regional and now international competitions.
“This is our second home, pretty much,” Goyena said.
If the team wins at NASA, Keefe said, all they get is a plaque. But for the team members, the competition has been more about their budding friendships and getting to NASA.
“I don’t think it’s as much about winning this as it is about the opportunity,” Cullen said. “I’m excited about the doors it will open.”