Simulated Gulf Oil Spill Challenges Students and Their Underwater Robots at Annual Robotics Competition

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MATE Center’s International Student ROV Competition Celebrates 10th Anniversary at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston

Students prepare their ROV (underwater robot) for the pool at the MATE Center's annual student ROV competition.

Students will compete using underwater robots, known as ROVs, that they designed and built to withstand the same conditions and challenges faced by ROV operators during last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Students from all over the world will gather in Houston from June 16-18 to compete in the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center’s 10th Annual International Student ROV Competition, to be held at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) in the Sonny Carter Training Facility at the NASA Johnson Space Center. The competition will be streamed live on the Internet at

Students will compete using underwater robots, known as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), that they designed and built to withstand the same conditions and challenges faced by ROV operators during last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This year’s contest encouraged students to think like “entrepreneurs” while creating and testing their ROV. Instead of forming teams, students formed “companies” tasked with designing specialized tools to help with oil spill mitigation. This helps them develop the teamwork, creative thinking, and problem solving skills that are important for being competitive in today’s global workplace.

Commercial ROVs are used extensively in the offshore oil and gas industries. During the Gulf Oil spill, ROVs and their operators worked around the clock for nearly three months to support the operations to cap and contain the devastating spill. Students will face a simulation of this scenario as they complete mission tasks such as removing a damaged riser pipe, capping a wellhead, collecting a water sample, measuring depth, and sampling organisms.

In addition to the underwater missions, teams must submit reports and make presentations to a panel of judges who represent various aspects of the marine industry. Each team is evaluated on the design, construction, and performance of its ROV; the members’ ability to communicate what they learned; and how they put their knowledge to use in designing and building their ROV.

Organized by MATE and the Marine Technology Society’s (MTS) ROV Committee, the ROV competition is designed to present middle school, high school, community college, and university students with the same types of challenges faced by scientists and engineers when working underwater, and to encourage them to learn and apply science, technology, engineering, and math skills to the real-world ocean workplace. The competition is supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA, NOAA, the Marine Technology Society ROV Committee and other ocean- and space-related organizations.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the competition, and the third time it has been held at NASA. At 202 feet long, 102 feet wide, 40 feet deep and a capacity of 6.2 million gallons, the NBL is the world’s largest indoor pool. It is normally used to train astronauts for spacewalks and other extra-vehicular space tasks.

Before the June event, teams from across the world participated in regional contests that feed into the international event. Currently, 20 regional competitions are part of the MATE Center’s ROV competition network:

  •     Big Island (Hilo, Hawai‘i)
  •     Carolina (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina)
  •     Florida (Cocoa, Florida)
  •     Great Lakes (Alpena, Michigan)
  •     Hawaii (Oahu, Hawai‘i)
  •     Hong Kong (Hong Kong)
  •     Japan (Tokyo)
  •     Mid-Atlantic (Norfolk, Virginia)
  •     Monterey Bay (Monterey, California)
  •     New England (Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts)
  •     Newfoundland & Labrador (St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador)
  •     Nova Scotia (Halifax, Nova Scotia)
  •     Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Washington)
  •     Pennsylvania (Villanova, Pennsylvania)
  •     Scotland (Aberdeen, Scotland)
  •     Midwest (Chicago, Illinois)
  •     Southern California Fly-Off (San Diego, California)
  •     Southeast (Savannah, Georgia)
  •     Texas (Houston, Texas)
  •     Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

For more information about the MATE ROV competition, or to view it streamed live on the Internet, please visit For more information about the MATE Center, visit

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Caroline Brown

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