When an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig on April 20, 2010, causing the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) were used to assess the extant of the damage.

Some of the technicians operating those robots got their first experience with the technology in the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center's Underwater Robotics Competition.

The event requires teams to build their own ROs, to tackle tasks that are based on real-world scenarios from the marine technical workplace.

Due to the limitations of wireless communications underwater, each robot has to be attached to its controller/power source by a chord.

Professional ROVs can be the size of a minivan, weigh up to 8,000 pounds, use motors with as much as 200 horse power, and can cost upwards of $5 million each. The ones in the MATE Center's competition are much smaller and cheaper, but the principles behind them are the same.

"We not only want to help students develop  knowledge and skills, we also want to  show them the career opportunities out there," said Jill Zande, MATE associate director and competition coordinator.

The competition began as a local event in the Monterey, Calif. area in 2001, and has grown every since then. Last year saw more than 600 teams compete, in 23 regional events held in places as far away as Hong Kong, Egypt and Scotland.

Working as a teamTeams range in size from a minimum of three members to as many as 25.

"We want the students to be exposed to the team dynamics: working with other people, communicating and compromising," Zande said.

Contest officials encourage team members to think of themselves as part of miniature corporations.

"We want to make it like, 'There's a job waiting for you,'" Zande said. "We're all about jobs. We want to show them the career opportunities."

The competition is broken into four classes, with explorer being the most advanced, followed by the ranger, navigator and scout classes. Everyone from elementary school students to college students are eligible. The classifications are decided entirely by abilities, rather than the competitors' ages or grade levels.

"The competition class structure allows students to move up to the next level when they're ready," Zande said. "If they have the knowledge and skills, as well as the interest, we don't want to hold them back."

In fact, the first year the competition went international, in 2002, a community college team took first place, a high school team took second place and a home schooled team took third place. The contest was not broken into different classes at that time.

In order to keep the competition affordable, the entry fee for the explorer class is $100, and the entry fee for the ranger class is $75. There is no cost for the bottom two levels.

The robots can get pricey though, ranging anywhere from under $100 for the most basic kits to thousands of dollars for the most advanced models.

Students in Alpena Community College's marine technology program are required to enter the competition as a capstone class. They are also required to take CAD classes and 3D print as many parts for their robots as possible. The goal is to help keep costs down while teaching students invaluable additive manufacturing skills.

Alpena Community College is located next to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary just off of Michigan's east coast and is hosting the Underwater Robotics Competition's Michigan Regional Event.

David Cummins, the school's marine technology advisor, has built a micro-ROV completely 3D printed with a Solidoodle printer – except for the electronics, which included a tiny $16 video camera originally designed to give automobile drivers a view of what's behind their cars when backing up.

"The first one I found was not water tight," Cummins admitted with a chuckle. "I thought I had water proofed it, but I fixed that in the second one."

His students are currently experimenting with designing different casings for their submersible robots, as well as trying to design an ideal propeller.

They are learning to account for the practical problems of creating things with 3D printers, like dealing with propellers warping without enough material in them. 

"People are not only interested in the robots, but also how they're made," Cummins said.