PT Sea Dragons place 4th in robotics competition

Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 7/2/18

The Port Townsend “Sea Dragons” underwater robotics team celebrated making it to this year’s international competition by inviting their fellow teams to a pizza party that weekend, but the Sea …

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PT Sea Dragons place 4th in robotics competition


The Port Townsend “Sea Dragons” underwater robotics team celebrated making it to this year’s international competition by inviting their fellow teams to a pizza party that weekend, but the Sea Dragons’ festivities are far from done.

Sea Dragons Team Captain Ella Ashford, a high school junior, explained they hosted the “Party at the Point” June 22 at Dash Point State Park, only 10 minutes from the competition venue in Federal Way, as an opportunity for fellow students and mentors alike to relax after competition, and meet their peers from around the world.

“It was amazing seeing so many students from all over the world, playing pickup football or a game of Frisbee,” Ashford said, in response to hosting 75 attendees from 10 different countries. “It was great we were able to host this opportunity for youth and their mentors, and showcase the natural beauty of Dash Point State Park.”

The Sea Dragons even handed out flyers to the other teams, inviting them to visit Port Townsend.

“The students of Makau said they came from the most population-dense place in the world,” Ashford said. “Their story was a stark reminder to us of the importance of conservation in Washington state.”

Eighth-grader Nathaniel Ashford, the team’s chief financial officer, noted the Party at the Point cost the Sea Dragons $900, of which they’ve recouped about half those expenses.

“Students and mentors from around the world enjoyed playing together and cooperating, not just competing,” Nathaniel Ashford said. “Globalization can still be steered by the thoughtful action of a small community like Port Townsend. We hope other communities around the world will follow our lead.”

To that end, the Sea Dragons plan to sell snow cones at Fort Worden Fourth of July celebrations, to help earn back the remainder of what the spent to stage the Party at the Point.

As to the June 21-23 Marine Advanced Technology Education Remotely Operated Vehicle international competition in Federal Way, Ella Ashford explained the teams were tasked with multiple challenges, including passing safety inspections, engineering and marketing presentations, and completing real-world missions with their robots.

The Sea Dragons placed fourth overall — behind Macau, Wisconsin and Russia — and earned the fourth best underwater robot score, as well as the third best engineering presentation score out of the 40 teams competing in the Ranger Class.

“It felt good to do this well, competing against teams from 20 countries at the high school and college level,” Ella Ashford said. “We were the youngest team at the event, with members from fifth to 11th grade.”

Ella Ashford also won the MATE Mariner Award and Most Valuable Player Award, given to exceptional student leaders, while serving as the Sea Dragons’ team captain, chief executive officer, and electrical and software engineer.

“We were judged best at communicating under pressure, when competing with our Remotely Operated Vehicle,” said fifth-grade team member Ayden Ratliff. “Next year, I want to work on improving the marketing section of our team, so we can be more competitive in the presentation aspect of the competition.”

Logan Flanagan, another high school junior on the team, cited one of the Sea Dragons’ greatest strengths as receiving support from local companies and supportive friends.

“This allowed us to make an ROV that was competitive on a college level,” Flanagan said, adding he’s developed a certain degree of confidence from previous robotics competitions. “Dealing with stress and keeping a cool head is the key to success. It also helped that our team is close-knit and worked well together. We have a great leader in Ella.”

Nathaniel Ashford touted the advantage of being able to practice nonstop with their vehicle in both the Puget Sound and a backyard pool.

“Through that experience, we understood all our vehicle’s systems,” Nathaniel Ashford said. “Our biggest limitation was our ROV’s speed. Next year, we’re aiming for a much faster design, and hope to continue our partnership with Peninsula College and the Composite Recycling Technology Center.”

The latter relationship was important because the majority of the Sea Dragons’ robot was built from recycled parts, including the carbon fiber frame recycled from Boeing.

Ratliff pointed out how the Sea Dragons not only competed against other teams, but also worked with them to solve problems, as when the team from Scotland helpfully informed the Port Townsend team of a modification they would need to make.

“The most surprising part of the competition was seeing how teams from around the world solve challenges differently than we do,” Ratliff said.

By contrast, Nathaniel Ashford was surprised by how much all the students had in common.

“Our success exceeded all my expectations,” Nathaniel Ashford said. “I learned there’s always a way to improve a product, even when you think it’s perfected. I look forward to improving our systems for next year.”

Ratliff agreed, for the Sea Dragons’ first time at an international competition, “We did exceptionally well,” although he’d already rated their chances highly, due to their effective teamwork and mutual support for each other.

“There are many ways to complete a challenge,” Ratliff said. “To find the best solution, you need to explore them all.”

Everest Ashford, the sixth-grader who served as the team’s tether manager, made sure the ROV didn’t get tangled in the communication line during their underwater challenges.

“It was challenging to do my job while keeping good communication with my team,” Everest Ashford said. “I like to work on real-world problems that can help make a better world. The MATE ROV competition lets me work with a team to learn new skills.”

Nathaniel Ashford credited the MATE ROV competition with “opening my mind to possible careers.” Among them, he expressed an interest in pursuing an education in naval architecture.

Flanagan noted the technical challenges the team overcome by developing troubleshooting skills.

“If we can do fourth place our first year, I have high hopes of continuing to compete and rank higher at an international level in the future,” Flanagan said.

In the meantime, Ella Ashford encouraged attendees of the “Fourth at the Fort” to stop by the main  Thunderbull Productions booth, to buy snow cones from the Sea Dragons, or else help them pay back their Party at the Point online at