By Jesse Major
Peninsula Daily News
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With nearly 15 minutes left of a 20-minute challenge, Nathan Ganzhorn, 14 — who is home-schooled — and Jakobee Ellis, 15 — who will be a freshman at Port Angeles High School this fall — propelled themselves to win the middle school division of the SeaPerch Regional Underwater Robotics competition in Bremerton and earned an invite to a national competition next year.
The team won 1,218 points, enough to win the division in which they competed against 26 middle school teams from Western Washington.
Other top scorers also are from the North Olympic Peninsula, with Sequim Middle School teams taking high points.
Sequim Middle students Ridge Armstrong and Zend Graham took second, Jesse Bobst and Miles Van Sant took third, Blake Boardman and Gabe Omann took fourth, Ellenor Magelssen and Kaemon Marshall took sixth and Isa Benitez and Zach DuPuy took 18th.
Eleven teams competed at the high school level.
“I was really pleased with this year's competition — not just because we won so handily but because there was a lot of improvising on the fly and a lot of troubleshooting and repair that went on,” said Wayne Roberts, lead instructor for the Port Angeles team.
“For me, that was the best part, seeing how they responded to that stress. You hope everything works, and when it does, great. But when it doesn't, how do you respond to that?”
What secured the team's win was the highly efficient electromechanical manipulator on their underwater vehicle, the students said.
The manipulator, a claw-like device used to grab items underwater, was created with technic Legos, Nathan said.
“I have a collection of technic Legos that I like to tinker with,” he said. “It's really simple.”
Nathan said what he enjoys about robotics is that there is virtually unlimited potential for design.
“You can build it however large you want with whatever structural complexity you want, taking into consideration its mission,” he said.
The underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was fashioned from PVC pipe, motors and other mechanical parts, and controlled via a controller the team built.
Teams competed in two underwater challenges and a poster competition, as well as a head-to-head flying challenge, needing to retrieve a certain amount of oddly shaped rings from the pool bottom.
One of the competitions required teams to collect simulated specimens, such as turtle eggs and sea urchins, from the bottom of the pool.
“You had to pick up these mock specimens of species,” Nathan said. “The manipulator helped us in that because we could just grab it and return it to the diving station.”
Another challenge required teams to repair an underwater sea lab that had encountered some problems.
“Essentially, we had to turn a valve that was supposedly leaking diesel into the ocean,” he said. “And we had to reset a circuit breaker.”
The pair is one of three teams from the after-school underwater robotics club sponsored by the Feiro Marine Life Center and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
Another middle school team from the club — composed of Eva O'Neil and Gavin Truckenmiller — placed fifth overall.
On the high school level, a team composed of Alyssa Potter, AJ Deford and Matthew Mitchell from the Feiro/sanctuary club placed seventh.
Alyssa, AJ and Matthew had to develop a workable engineering solution under pressure when they had to re-solder a motor that fell off near the end of their first underwater challenge.
Students new to the club might not have much background knowledge of robotics, Roberts said. They learn as they go, building everything themselves with guidance from instructors.
“The material is simple, but the trick is putting the materials together in a way that the vehicle just barely floats,” Roberts said.
“We try to provide an atmosphere where it's safe to fail,” he said.
“Nobody fails. It either works, or it's a learning experience.”
The club is preparing for a middle school-aged camp this July and is open to any kids with an interest in underwater robotics.
More information is available at www.feiromarinelifecenter.org/youth-programs.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.