The story of Hydrobots (Part 1)

In 2014, and after two years of failure in achieving any advanced ranking in ROV Egypt Regional Competition, I decided to build a new team – Hydrobots. We managed to come 5th and win the Best Engineering Design award yet, no one has ever been told the whole story of this fabulous team.

In this story, I’m going to do my best telling you why this team was built and how, what obstacles we found and how we overcame them. The purpose of this story is to transfer this experience to all people who want to build their own teams and participate in robotics competitions. It doesn’t matter whether it’s ROV or any other competition – eventually, they’re all the same when it comes to team building and project management. It’s inevitable to talk about mistakes we made and conflicts that happened inside the team. The purpose of this is to tell people reading this post that conflicts happen within teams all the time and how to solve them .. early.

I tried to tell the whole story in one post, but it turned to be incredibly lengthy and boring. Therefore, I decided to split it in a number of posts.

In this post, you will see how did Hydrobots team emerged and what important milestones we have achieved to be able to build that team.

The beginning …

In 2011, I was still in my first year in the faculty of Engineering in Mansoura University. I didn’t know much about Engineering, I was even confused about what faculty to enroll in before getting convinced by one of my relatives’ logic that faculty of Engineering has many departments which will give me the opportunity to choose from. Anyways, I just had an old experience in programming in a competition called Egyptian Olympiads of Informatics (EOI) in 2007 and I knew nothing about what I’ll be doing in that faculty. On one day, I saw an announcement posted on some wall at the faculty’s building which says that someone called “Karim Samir” will be giving a small session about something called “ROV” which is an underwater robot, a submarine ! And I just decided to attend.

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Karim Samir on the left with a number of organizers in the orientation event in AASMT. (Source: Karim Samir’s profile on G+)

On the due date, I was in the hall waiting for that visitor. Looking around, most of the people who were in the hall were my seniors. Karim entered the hall, started his presentation and I listened carefully. I won’t lie to you, I didn’t understand 20% of what was said. I was still too young and inexperienced to understand anything .. I listened to the questions my seniors asked and Karim’s answers without understanding anything. At the end of the session, my seniors started to group and agree to form teams to participate in the competition. I was too shy and unconfident to ask any of them to be part of their teams.

In that year, I gave myself a promise that I must compete in this competition as soon as I learn the most basic knowledge required to build that robot. One of my friends, Ahmed Fathy, also attended that session too. So, it was the passion of two people now.

Caetus team

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Caetus team in 2013 (I couldn’t find a photo of them in 2012 until now). (Source: Caetus Tech Report 2013)

I almost forgot about the competition and just focused on study in that year (first year or preparatory year in the faculty). But one day, I found a post on Facebook of one team from my university competing in the ROV competition and that it is going to compete in the International competition in the USA !! The team’s name was Caetus and most of the team members were from the department I wanted to get into !!

The vibe was immense. I kept following their news until I knew that they, with their simple robot, have managed to win the 16th place in the International competition, beating many other teams from other countries with more budgets and sophisticated equipment. At this moment, I’ve made my mind that I must participate in the competition very soon.

Ammar Alaa

I still had a conviction that, one should be an expert to compete in such a competition. Anyway, you can’t actually build something if you don’t know how to build it, so you have to practice building this robot and take your time to learn everything needed to professionally build that robot.

The next year (2nd year in faculty), I met Ammar, a friend in Mechanical Engineering department, who participated in a local competition in the faculty where people should build a line follower robot. At that time, that robot was something really BIG and COMPLEX to me. Although it wasn’t Ammar’s speciality and he didn’t know anything about electronics, robotics or even programming, he participated in the competition, asked people, searched the internet, downloaded datasheets and read them and eventually bought the components with a very low budget ! Moreover, he actually did come FIRST in that competition !!

His big achievement at that time changed my conviction. I met him and talked to him about my intention to participate in the ROV competition; however, I told him that I want to compete the next year because I’m still inexperienced. But he told me what I was starting to be convinced with : “And why don’t you compete this year?”. His words changed everything.

Future team

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Future team in 2013 at BUE. People from left to right: Ahmed Barakat, Ahmed Imam(above), Ahmed Abo Ammo (below), Omar El-Dadamony, Me, Ahmed Medhat, Ahmed Fathy.

I, Ammar, Ahmed Fathy, an old friend called Omar El-dadamony and a new friend, Ahmed Barakat, gathered together and decided to start a team and participate in the competition immediately. We found that we need more members, so we stood in the middle of the faculty’s yard searching for anyone we know to ask him to join us ! It was crazy but what was crazier than a bunch of 1st year students forming a team and competing in such a competition ?! We managed to gather some friends but many of them left us short after.

We successfully formed the team. We held our first meeting, I took the rule of explaining the competition rules and scoring system for the rest of the members. I also explained what I knew about ROVs back then as well as possible. Some people left the team after that meeting telling me that this is not their thing, they were just not interested. One friend, Ahmed Sallam, who will be a cornerstone in building the Hydrobots team later – told me that he is not competing that year but is willing to help if we asked him. Anyway, we formed the team without a budget or supervision; and here is when we received an unrefusable offer from one team called, Future team.

 

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A picture of the whole team after closing the robot for the first time.

Future team was a team of 3rd-year students and 4th-year students which participated in Minesweeper competition and did come 4th in the national round. They had very talented people and a lot of left components, mechanical and electronic parts. They offered us to participate in the ROV competition under their name in exchange of their supervision, their components and their lab. I couldn’t resist. After  some reluctance from the members, they all agreed and we started to work in our new place, “Systems Dynamics Laboratory”.

We worked day and night, with the help of our seniors in the team and by asking everybody we could find, we managed to produce our first prototype, Dolphix. I may want to talk about the incredible efforts we made to actually finish that robot, but it may need a separate post to cover all the details.

We had to compete first in the local competition. In that year, the organizers decided to make the requirements for the local competition different from those of the regional competition. All the efforts we made were to pass the local round only.

The organizers announced that they will be preparing a swimming pool for the teams in the British University in Egypt (BUE) and asked the teams to try their robots in the pool a week before the actual date. We took our robot and traveled to Cairo and went to the pool.

We Egyptians don’t like to finish our work early, we are people of the Last Moment. This rule seemed to apply on that day when we went to the BUE because our robot was not really ready. There, at the trial venue, we kept working on the last touches, making the last connections, fixing the last bugs, and closing the robot for the first time. We put the robot into the water .. switched the power on .. nothing exploded, that was promising .. Ahmed Barakat, who was piloting the robot, started to press the joystick buttons but nothing seemed to work .. he pressed another button and suddenly … the right thruster started to spin! The robot actually moved although it was actually swimming not diving because the pressure can was very big that its buoyancy was way larger than the robot’s weight – so it floated. He tried another button, and suddenly the robot slowly moved forward !! We cried of joy, that thing really worked, in some sort, at least! The truth is that we didn’t finish any task of the mission underwater, simply because the robot couldn’t dive and because a leak had happened. So we urgently took the robot out of water and dried the electronics boards trying to save what can be saved. However, our happiness with that small achievement was immense.

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Our ROV, Dolphix, swimming across the pool.

We took pictures, we came back full of joy .. but just after few days we were shocked with the decision of the organizers to postpone the competition’s date and merge it with the regional competition so that the competition will be held with the regional competition mission instead of the local’s – which was very hard.

It was devastating. We spent a lot of money on building the robot specifically for the local mission but now, we had to change that all for the regional mission! No one in the team was willing to pay anything more, an effort to gain a fund from the university failed and everything seemed dark, we are going to quit.

In the middle of those negative thoughts, a small chat with Amr Mohammed, a member of Caetus team who was competing in the competition, brought me back on the right track. I told Amr “We’re going to quit, we don’t have enough money” … “Lack of resources have always been the true source of innovation and creativity .. you still can compete” he told me. After his words, I decided with the team to keep going and not to give up .. and so did we. We adjusted our robot to adapt to the changes in the mission requirements and went to the competition venue.

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Modified version of Dolphix for the regional competition’s mission.

However, the robot didn’t work. The pool water leaked into the pressure can causing a short circuit in the electronics boards. Everything ended quickly. The camera shut down very quickly and Ibrahim, a team member, shouted “A short circuit, plug out the connections from your laptop or it’s going to get damaged”. We pulled the robot out of water and opened the pressure can to find a LOT of water has leaked into it. This is how we lost the first year.

Nevertheless, we had a very good feedback from the judges. They praised our mentality and some of the primitive and inexpensive solutions we adopted in our design. This praising was in its time, it cheered us up.

We learnt a lot in that experience. We worked under extreme pressure and saw how things can get wrong in the last moment. We tasted the sweet flavour of achievement. We worked hard, stayed awake late at night, designed and built our own designs. We saw how one can face a real life challenge and think creatively about solutions that can actually be implemented and tested. We also learnt that we are better than we think. We don’t need to be experts to actually build something, you can learn on the go. You learn better when you need a piece of information to do something you want. Learning by doing is the best model of education.

We decided to compete again next year.

Future team .. again

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Some time passed and I started to rethink the idea of participating. However, Omar El-Dadamony had that passion to stay in the competition.

In the next part of this story, you’ll know how Future team had risen again and competed in the competition for its second year and how that time contributed in the emergence of Hydrobots team.

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