Caltech Robotics Team ‘Goes for the Gold' at RoboSub Competition

"We are just a little college team trying to do some cool science."

A group of 25 students gathers weekly in the basement of Caltech's aerospace building with one humble goal: to build an underwater autonomous robot.

Caltech's robotics team has worked the better part of last year, over 100 total hours, to build Dory, who will compete at the International RoboSub Competition on Saturday.

"We are just a little college team trying to do some cool science," said Jake Larson, the team's outreach manager.

Though it is the team's third year competing in the obstacle course competition, it Dory's first. Unlike the previous years' robots, Crush and Bruce, Dory can shoot tiny torpedoes and use a robotic arm to pick up weights.

And yes, Larson says, all three robots were named after "Finding Nemo" characters.

"She has the positive outlook on life and we thought the name would help us 'just keep swimming,'" Larson said.

The competition is a series of tasks along an underwater obstacle course at the Navy's SSC Pacific Transdec. Though there is a 15-minute time limit, teams are scored based on how many tasks their robot completes.

The harder the task, the more points the robot is given, said Andrea Ansell, a spokeswoman for the AUVSI Foundation, the organization heading the event.

Last year, CalTech Robotics Team got fourth place. This year, Larson said they are "going for gold."

Larson plans to drive up Friday morning with some team members to get ready for the big event. Though the team has no special ritual, Larson said they will run through a checklist before dropping the robot in the water. After that, the team's fate is in Dory's hands.

"You are sitting poolside, staring down into the water, yelling at this little robot like it's a human," Larson said. "You just hope that it reaches that marker or picks up that weight."

The first place finisher gets $5,000.

With Dory running a price tag of around $75,000, Larson said it's less about the money than it is about the accolade of winning. He said he sometimes feels like a movie producer, working behind the scenes tirelessly as the big show approaches. On Saturday, a year's work will finally be premiered and get its 15 minutes of fame.

When asked what he plans to do after everything is finally over, Larson laughs.

"Probably meet up to start figuring out what we are going to build next year," he said.

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