Aquatic robotics team blows competition out of the water

Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 6/6/17

A half dozen Port Townsend elementary and middle school students, led by a high school sophomore, held their own in a regional underwater robotics competition May 13.

The Pacific Northwest MATE …

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Aquatic robotics team blows competition out of the water


A half dozen Port Townsend elementary and middle school students, led by a high school sophomore, held their own in a regional underwater robotics competition May 13.

The Pacific Northwest MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) competition saw the Port Townsend 4-H STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Club take first place in its category for its remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in Federal Way.

Third-grader Jack Cole, fourth-graders Ayden Ratliff and T.J. Brass, fifth-grader Everest Ashford and seventh-grader Nathaniel Ashford were led by 10th-grader Ella Ashford in their second annual entry in this competition, following their debut win as “Rookies of the Year” in 2016 with a first in the “Navigator” category for 2017.

Ella, the president of the club, explained that the categories are determined by relative experience, rather than ages or grade levels, with “Scouts” being the newest teams, while “Navigators” are often made up of middle and high school students with one to two years of experience in competitions.

“Port Townsend High School has a Ranger team, which is the next level up,” said Ella, who’s also a member of the Port Townsend Roboctopi robotics team, which competed in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics world championships in Texas in April. “But they weren’t able to compete this year due to logistical issues.”

While most other teams are able to begin their build seasons as early as December or January, the PT 4-H STEM Sea Dragons had only a five-week build season to construct their robot, due to the number of other competitions they enter each year. In his first year of MATE competition, Ayden took over as the mechanical engineer when his predecessor couldn’t get the claw for the S.S. Dragon to operate properly with a pneumatic system.

“Pneumatic is air-powered, but hydraulic is water-powered,” Ayden said. “The pneumatic kept having air leaks, but the hydraulics were more efficient.”


For this year’s competition theme of “Port Cities of the Future,” Everest built an underwater “hyperloop,” which he described as “a pressurized tube used to send cargo, cars and people,” as part of his job as the future city engineer.

And as part of his duties as the ROV’s camera specialist and pilot, Nathaniel was given the task of using the ROV to collect environmental samples in the water and transport them to the surface.

“We basically had to set up a simulated company, where each of us had different roles,” Ella said. “We got promoted to the Ranger category for next year, which is almost all high schoolers, even though Jack is only in third grade.”

This recognition represents the payoff for 20 hours of work per week, for all five weeks that the team spent building and testing its robot. When asked, Ayden, Everest and Nathaniel all agreed that they had fun playing around with technology with their friends, but they also credited the experience with teaching them about engineering and teamwork.

“I liked the challenge of building stuff and working with teammates,” Ayden said.

“It’s hard to make things more efficient,” Everest said. “You have to spend a lot of time on it.”

“I enjoy designing and innovating things,” Nathaniel said. “I really want to create an underwater robot that can clean the bottoms of boats, since barnacles and seaweed can slow boats down.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Nathaniel and his teammates have had to clean the bottoms of boats by hand, but their aspirations extend much higher. Nathaniel is aiming toward a career as a naval architect, while Jack is pursuing the sciences, and T.J. hopes to become a fighter pilot.


Ella, who’s leaning toward the biomedical field, noted that the PT 4-H STEM Club takes part in four annual competitions: MATE, the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair, the Great Port Townsend Bay Kinetic Sculpture Race and FIRST Robotics for elementary and middle school.

To that end, Ella has created a GoFundMe page to pay for her to help coach a FIRST Robotics team at an international school in Billund, Denmark, the birthplace of Lego. She estimates her three-month stay with a host family is likely to run at least $5,000.

“Working on robotics through the Roboctopi and the Sea Dragons made me want to connect with other people and share the spirit of ‘cooperition’ around the world,” said Ella, referring to the FIRST Robotics concept of “cooperative competition,” which routinely sees competing teams lending each other aid and assistance, up to and including spare parts, during their competitions.


Charlie Bedony, president of the 2-year-old Applied Education Foundation, which helps support the PT 4-H STEM Club, touted the group’s winning performances as positive signs for fostering hands-on skills among future generations.

“With the decline of shop class and the politicization of education, we’re not passing along important life skills,” Bedony said. “And when kids can learn these skills from other kids, they relate to it better than when it’s coming from some old guy like me. It’s great to watch the lights go on in their heads, as they seriously rethink what they might do with their lives.”