PT Sea Dragons team uses robot to help Port of Brownsville

Posted 4/3/19

Winning fourth place at an international marine robotics competition got Port Townsend’s teenage underwater robotics team thinking. What else could their Remotely Operated Vehicle, “Phantom” do?

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PT Sea Dragons team uses robot to help Port of Brownsville


Winning fourth place at an international marine robotics competition got Port Townsend’s teenage underwater robotics team thinking. What else could their Remotely Operated Vehicle, “Phantom” do?

“When we got back, we said, ‘Look, we have this state-of-the-art ROV,’” said Ella Ashford, a homeschooled senior and CEO of the local Sea Dragons team. “How do we use this resource in our community—the community that helped support us so much in getting to internationals?”

At the 2018 international Marine Advanced Technology Education ROV competition, the Sea Dragons competed against 40 other teams to carry out as many subsurface “missions” as possible in a 12-foot pool. Their five-person team, which was the youngest team in the Ranger Class, 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 class.

Coming home with a win under their belts the team—which is made up of Ashford, her two brothers, ninth-grader Nathaniel Ashford, seventh-grader Everest Ashford, Port Townsend High School senior Logan Flanagan, and sixth-grader Ayden Ratliff—wanted to embark on a real-life environmental project with their ROV.

“I went and presented to the Marine Resource Committee and then through that and the connections we have throughout the region, we were referred to the Port of Brownsville,” Ashford said.

The Port of Brownsville was preparing to replace an aging fuel dock. But without adequate funding to do so, they had proposed raising taxes to cover the cost, Ashford said.

“It was kind of a political situation over there, as most things are,” Ashford said. “The community didn’t feel that this was the right decision to make because they felt that the port didn’t do enough surveying of the pier.”

That’s where the Sea Dragons found their opportunity. Their ROV, which is equipped with underwater propulsion and underwater video equipment, is capable of surveying the bottom of a dock for damage.

“We had to survey the bottom of the pier and the flotation, which are cement pontoons,” Flanagan said. “Those pieces have rebar through them. If water gets into the rebar and starts rusting, it can crack the cement and then start leaking water inside the pontoons.”

While they had done saltwater tests with their ROV before, the Port of Brownsville project presented some challenges the team had to overcome on their first day of surveying.

“The port was actually pretty enclosed, so there was a lot of dirt and you couldn’t see very well through the water,” Flanagan said. “We weren’t expecting it to be as dark as it was.”

His quick fix for the darkness problem was two waterproof flashlights strapped to the front of the ROV, to illuminate the path through the murky waters.

“Another problem was our cameras are facing this way (forward), not upright,” Ashford said. “In competition, we’re looking at things in front of us or down below us. So it was definitely a big shift of perspective.”

To survey the bottom of the pier, the team clipped a GoPro camera to the top of their ROV. The videos and images they picked up in three days of surveying were then submitted to the port’s architects, who will determine the structural integrity of the dock.

Because they volunteered their time for the environmental project at the port, they have applied for the President’s Youth Environmental Award, and are waiting to hear the results of that.

“It’s a pretty competitive award, so I’m not sure how our chances are,” said Nathaniel Ashford.

Award-winning or not, the project helped the students see their product and skills stand up against real world struggles.

“As the pilot, one of my struggles was being able to navigate through all the sea life on the dock,” Ashford said. “Having a camera facing the surface was also disorientating and made driving difficult.”

But the environmental project helped the students realize that their good communication skills and teamwork will help them in any situation, whether it is at the national competition or working on a real-world mission.

“ROVs are such an amazing contribution to the world right now because they can go deep, ... where humans don’t want to go or can’t go,” Ashford said. “It was nice to be able to go into that situation and say, ‘Ok there’s some political tension going on, but no one can be mad at kids who are just trying to help the environment.’ The community was so grateful because suddenly they were getting their surveying work done.”

While more environmental projects are in the future for the group of teens, they are now focused on their next robot, which they are designing for the 2019 regional competition in May. They hope to make it to nationals again, and maybe this time get an even better score.

“During these next few months we will probably take a break from most environmental work, and focus on getting a new ROV up and running,” Ashford said.

Competition season also comes with fundraising, as the parts for their new ROV don’t come for free. To donate to the Sea Dragons team, go to