Russians are first-time entrants in San Diego RoboSub competition

SAN DIEGO — In a huge tank at a once-secret Navy base on Point Loma, students from the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok are testing their autonomous underwater vehicle, the AUV Junior.

The vehicle may be a miniature, but the significance is huge: It’s the first time a team from the Russian Federation has entered the annual RoboSub competition, which is co-sponsored by the Pentagon’s Office of Naval Research. For the engineering-minded, this is the Super Bowl of underwater contests.

The venue is an enormous pool built in 1964, when submarines from the U.S. Navy and the Soviet Union, maneuvering for underwater dominance, were engaged in dangerous missions of hide-and-seek that were never meant to be revealed to the public.

The Transducer Evaluation Center pool is 300 feet by 200 feet, 38 feet deep and holds 6 million gallons. Its quiet water allowed U.S. scientists to develop listening technology intended, among other things, to give U.S. submarines an edge over their Soviet rivals in detecting underwater hazards and potential enemies.

That kind of high-tech research continues here, but for one week each summer the pool is used for the RoboSub competition, open to all comers. U.S. officials even approved a team of Iranian students, but the government in Tehran backed out.

At this year’s 15th annual event, 28 teams from universities and high schools in eight countries are vying for $20,000 and considerable bragging rights. The competition began Tuesday. The public is invited to the finals on Saturday and Sunday.

The competition is also sponsored by the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation, an offshoot of an industry trade association. The goal of the industry and the Navy is the same: promote interest in unmanned vehicles among the young and curious.

“If you want to get kids interested in science, put a robot in their hands,” said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the AUVSI Foundation.

The competition has an official bumper sticker: My Other Vehicle Is Unmanned.

The Russian Federation team, five students and an engineering professor, is smaller than most. But what it lacks in numbers, it is determined to replace with a laser-like focus on the task at hand.

“We are sleeping only three hours a night,” said Alexander Scherbatyuk, the professor. “We have too many problems to overcome. We are here to learn, to compare our technology with others’.”

Long ago, such sharing of information between East and West at any level was strictly forbidden. Now it’s encouraged, both in this competition and in the deep waters off the Hawaiian Islands.

Not far from Pearl Harbor, the Admiral Panteleyev, the Fotiy Krylov and the Boris Butoma have joined naval vessels from 21 nations for the 23rd Rim of the Pacific exercise — the first time the Russian Navy has sent ships to the world’s largest international maritime exercise.

Geopolitical change manifests itself, it seems, in ways both large and small.

In the RoboSub event, many of the teams work all year perfecting their vessels, which must navigate an obstacle course strictly by pre-programming. A craft must know how to recognize and overcome an obstacle with no one operating a joystick from dry land.

Last year’s winner, Ecole de Technologie Superieure from Montreal, is back, fresh from a victory in a similar competition in La Spezia, Italy.

“There is very big work to be done,” said Sergeenko Nikolai, 23, an undergraduate at Far Eastern Federal University.

The always-tough University of Florida is here, with its vehicle the SubjuGator. Also the University of Maryland, with Tortuga IV. The Spanish team has Isaac 2012, named for Isaac Peral y Caballero, a Spanish naval officer who designed an underwater craft launched in 1888.

The team from Iceland named its craft for the Norse goddess Freyja. Cornell University is trying some reverse psychology: Its sub is named Killick, a term for an anchor.

Last year, the Cornell entry was named for something light. It went slow. So the team figures that a heavy name will make the vehicle go fast. In RoboSub competition, every edge helps.

“We have essentially the same robot as last year’s, but we’ve updated our sub-systems,” explained Chris Carlsen, 23, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland.

Teams test their subs in smaller 12-foot pools before trying the big pool. There, Navy divers guide the vessels to keep them from sinking during the trial runs. The runs are visible on a large outdoor screen. Rock music blares over the venue; among the songs blasting during the Russians’ trial was “American Woman.”

The tests are stressful as team members examine read-outs on their computer screens, knowing they are unable to guide their craft. Autonomous means autonomous.

Igor Tuphanov, 24, a postgraduate student at Far Eastern Federal, was the Russian team’s point man beside the big pool: waiting, watching, fidgeting.

Finally, he let loose with a burst of high-speed Russian — followed, in English, with “All right, that’s pretty good.”