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Image credit: ONRAhhh, summer. For most students, it’s a time to break from the rigors of math and science, spending days relaxing at the beach or pool.

For others, however, it means building platforms, writing program code and tweaking various hardware components.

Team S.S. Minnow falls into the latter category. Meet Nick Serle, 15, and Abby Butka, 14, a homeschooled robotics team from Florida.

For the past three years the pair has been competing against some of the finest technical universities in the world via the SeaPerch, RoboSub and RoboBoat robotic competitions—all co-sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). 

“I’ve seen Nick and Abby rise through these contests and become fierce competitors,” said Kelly Cooper, a program officer in ONR’s Sea Warfare and Weapons Department. “It is success stories like theirs that motivate us to support these competitions.”

These programs align with one another and provide continuous educational opportunities for students from middle to graduate school.

“Competition opportunities like these are important because they build confidence, teach life skills and mature real-world problem solving abilities,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear. Adm. Mat Winter. “These are key attributes we value for all personnel entering into our naval workforce and research community—which in turn will be the driving force behind our Navy and Marine Corps' technological superiority.”

The two students started their journey in 2013 at the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences, where they took a robotics science class and were introduced to SeaPerch—a student-built underwater remotely-operated vehicle.

After placing second overall in the SeaPerch regional competition, the team built an even faster model for nationals, where they finished third in the deep-water challenge.

Feeling inspired by their success, Nick and Abby wanted more.

“We had done well at SeaPerch and wanted a bigger challenge,” said Butka. “When we talked to the students in the Robotics Association at Embry Riddle University [their technical mentor], they suggested the RoboSub competition, which was similar to SeaPerch but fully autonomous.”

But were they ready for the big leagues? The short answer was yes, but there was some trepidation. As Butka put it: “RoboSub, that’s a college competition! We’ll be like minnows swimming with sharks!”

The fear would soon fade. After gaining permission to be the first middle school team ever allowed entrance to the competition, the pair set off to build their RoboSub prototype, designed to resemble the SeaPerch used in the national competition, yet operate autonomously. During the competition, they were one of only three teams to circumnavigate the gate—a difficult task that required teams to pass their submarine through a three-pronged gate and circle the middle pole.

They finished the competition ranked 11 out of 33 teams.

In 2014, team S.S. Minnow took the lessons learned and made their way back to the regional and national SeaPerch and international RoboSub competitions, where they placed first, third and 11th, respectively. 

This year, the team decided to compete on top of the water instead of under, and entered RoboBoat, an autonomous surface vessel tournament.

“RoboBoat offered different areas of engineering that we wanted to try, such as GPS,” said Serle. “That made this competition very enticing.”

The team placed fourth out of 16 teams, an impressive showing for their first time out, but they said they’ll be back next year with new ideas on how to improve their performance even more.

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