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Gulf Coast Academy students prepare remote-controlled submarines for competition

Gulf Coast Academy seventh-grader Keegan Phillips, 13, center, guides his team’s remote-controlled submarine alongside team member Hailey Coutu, 12, and technology teacher Dylan Barnes.
Gulf Coast Academy seventh-grader Keegan Phillips, 13, center, guides his team’s remote-controlled submarine alongside team member Hailey Coutu, 12, and technology teacher Dylan Barnes.
Published Mar. 18, 2015

SPRING HILL — The little machine with the tiny thrusters whirled about in the water, guided remotely by a Gulf Coast Academy student. The student was trying to maneuver it around obstacles in a big, blue 300-gallon tub of water.

Gulf Coast students took turns moving their ROVs, or remote-controlled vehicles — in this case, submarines — through the water, testing what they had built.

It all started when the school's curriculum and instruction director, Joseph Gatti, received an email from a charter school conference that identified a website offering ROV kits. Gatti filed the grant request with the Sea­Perch program, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, but was denied due to a lack of funding. A few months later, "boxes and boxes of submarine kits arrived at our door," he said.

All he can figure is that money became available and the kits were sent. But the school wanted enough to supply both seventh-grade classes, and they only had 12.

Technology teacher Dylan Barnes, who also serves as technology department chairman for all three of the county's charter schools — Gulf Coast Academy, Gulf Coast Middle School and BEST Academy — wrote a grant to the Hernando County Education Foundation, seeking more. He got the kits he needed.

The kits provided the students with three different units of work, Barnes said. They had to construct the physical structure, including measuring PVC pipes, cutting them and drilling drain holes.

"It helps them understand buoyancy," Barnes said.

When it came to the thrusters — two for forward and backward motion, and two for moving the vehicle up and down — the students had to waterproof them.

"We used toilet bowl wax inside film canisters," to house the motors, Barnes said.

The students also had to make control boards.

"They soldered the entire control board," Barnes said. They connected an Ethernet cable between the control board and the motors, and a power cable between the motors and the battery.

The students seemed impressed with what the little submarines taught them.

"My favorite part was soldering the control panel," said seventh-grader Katie-Ann Pecora, 13. "I didn't know how to do that at first, but I learned and I'm pretty good at it."

"My favorite part was drilling the PVC," said Gabrielle Anderson, 12, "because I never drilled before and you can't have spaghetti arms when you drill."

The school received another email advising it of a SeaPerch competition to be held at the end of March in Boca Raton. Seventh- and eighth-grade students were polled to find two teams of four to compete.

The seventh grade is sending Haley Nelson, 13, and Katie-Ann Pecora, Gabrielle Anderson and Skylar Daniel, all 12. The eighth-graders are twins David and John Parker, 14, and Max Deroin. 13. The fourth team member dropped out, and they are seeking a replacement.

The teams' skills will be tested, and to that end they are adding extensions to the fronts of their ROVs that will help with precision challenges. The teams are also expected to bring presentation boards. They intend to add GoPro cameras to their submarines and will run them at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to demonstrate how the ROVs can be used for exploration.

The teams know they will be competing against each other, as well as against students from other schools, but the eighth-graders suggested they might have an edge over the younger students.

"We competed in a balsam wood competition and won first place," said David Parker, "and we also did VEX robotics (a competition sponsored by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation)."

That challenge required controlling a robot to move balls to a bin, avoiding pipes along the way — kind of like moving a submarine around underwater obstructions.