Project Phoenix – Its All Over, But How Did We Do?

Now that SAUC-e is over and the team have had some time to recover i feel that a large post is in order to let you know how we got on. This will cover our journey from beginning to end, including the highs and lows, starting from when we left Bristol. (Warning – long read – picture heavy)

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26th-27th june – The journey to la spezia:

creative use of spare sapce in the spare wheel well

After some creative car packing we managed to fit everything in the hire car and 4 of us left for Nancy, France.

something weird about driving onto a train

We headed for Dover, crossed at the channel tunnel before heading through France, Belgium , Luxembourg then back into France covering almost 600 miles on the first day.

On the second day we traveled from Nancy through France and Switzerland, under 18 km of alps and into Italy.

Raspberry Pi and a webcam, who needs gopro

We also wanted to make a record of our epic journey, this was easily accomplished by setting up a webcam in the dash which is connected to a Raspberry Pi. once booted it takes a picture every 4 seconds, this gave us a couple of thousand images documenting our entire trip. this was compiled into a time-lapse video and was used in our video log.

28th-30th June – The First Few Days:

what a view

After waking up we quickly realized that the epic view made up for stiff beds in the army barracks that we were staying in.


First job was to head to the NATO base and unload the Phoenix before heading to La Spezia central station to pick up the other 3 team members that had flown to the competition.


We quickly assembled phoenix and added some finishing touches before sealing the hull for the first and ONLY time during the entire competition.

trimming the boyancy

Phoenix was one of the first AUV’s in the water and was the first moving in the test tanks with the systems and motors powered up. We were Calibrating sensors and testing motor control before many teams had even turned up.

Video log:

We submitted a video log to the judges showing some development and testing. Ours documented the design and build of Phoenix, our trip to Italy and some of our initial testing.

1st-3rd  July- Collecting Data and testing:

Ultra HIgh-Tech Unmanned Surface Vechile

We had realized that we needed to get out into bay to collect sonar data. the problem was that Phoenix needed to be tethered so that we could keep remote control and our tether was not long enough to reach out to the middle of the bay. Our solution to this problem was to put the router, git server and battery pack into a waterproof case and float this out on the end of our tether. This allowed the sub to connect to the router with the tether whilst we connect over the WiFi. We made a small raft to lift the router up out of the water and secured the Ethernet so that that the sub could pull it around. The end result may not look as good as the surface routers some of the other teams had but it performed just as well whilst costing a fraction of the amount and taking up no space in the car during travel. Another thing that we noticed was that many teams had wooden beads or foam floats on there tethers to keep them from getting in the way. This was solved by the quick thinking of one of the uwesub team members and left many teams with a look on there face that said “why didn’t we think of that”.

Quick Thinking

We just tied a few party balloons onto the tether at regular intervals. Cheap, easy, effective and colorful. what more could you want.

4th-5th  July – competition days:

There are not that many photos of the competition day to be honest, many other more important things to do. We started early as we were the first team on the rota for static judging at 8:30 in the morn. During our presentation we discussed the robust and modular design of Phoenix as well as how cost effective  many of our design solutions had been (with the whole chassis costing less than £600). This was swiftly followed by a demonstration of quick deployment and of our motor control.

as soon as we finished we had to get ready for our qualifying slot. We were having some issues with some of the messages not being sent/received properly on the ROS message buss so missed our first qualifying slot. After getting very frustrated we decided to go and think about the problem over lunch. Once we had stepped away from the problem we came up with a simple solution, we would just set the PID values we needed manually before the run. We returned from lunch and quickly implemented and the new idea. we tested it a few times in the testing tank and decided we were ready for our first try at qualifying. Our second qualifying slot was quickly approaching so we put phoenix in the bay and got ready.

The team was very nervous as this was the first time that Phoenix had ever been “let of the lead” in open water. We were ready at the start line and as soon as the judges gave us the go ahead we began the mission from a laptop on the surface. Phoenix descended slowly down to the mission depth then immediate accelerated forward, reaching full speed almost instantly. The pace at which Phoenix moved caught the judges a little of guard and there was a small rush to start the follow boat and catch up with our AUV. As soon as Phoenix reached the middle of the bay it stopped instantly, before smoothly turning 90 degrees to face the qualification gate and shooting off toward it. Phoenix sailed straight through the qualification gate first time before resurfacing. This was a massive relief to the uwesub team who thought that we had successfully qualified on our first run.

This was however short lived as the judges said that they had seen the tip (1 inch maybe) of the WiFi aerial break the surface of the water mid way through the run. This meant that the run was disqualified. This was a massive disappointment to the team however we understand that rules are rules and so we quickly setup to try and get another run in before our time ran out. We had issues reconnecting to the WiFi so gave the system a full reset whilst out on the boat. As we started everything back up we lowered the mission depth by another meter so that we would not have the same problem this run. Tensions were high as we waited for things to compile again, we knew that there were only minuets left in our run.

With less than 60 seconds to go we started the mission again. This time however Phoenix just dove, nose down,  instead of the controlled decent we had seen on the previous run. As the forward power kicked we just saw the AUV disappear into the depths of the bay. This was the moment the real panic set in. We realized that we had not manually reset the PID values we needed since rebooting the system. We also quickly realized we had no way to communicate with the sub, check if it was OK or even locate it. All we could do was hope that it resurfaced. 10 tense minuets had passed and still no sign of it. We begun to worry that maybe an impact had cracked the back panel or that  the depth had caused a leak. if water had gotten into the hull it would be game over.

Then suddenly there was a ray of hope, someone on the boat spotted the faint flash from our overpowered strobe. This meant that we had found it and also that everything inside was still dry. Eventually it was recovered with a few long poles and and a big hook. As they brought it back up we prepared for the worst but surprising there was no damage to the hull or chassis. Most of the damage was to the team who were all disappointed that we had not qualified. We decided to start packing up as there was noting more we could do.

As we were packing up we were approached by the judges who said that due to the small number of teams that qualified they were going to give us one more qualifying slot the next morning to try again, if we wanted it. Of course we wanted it. we had been given a second chance and intended to make the most of it. Nearly all the team spent long into the night coding and testing to make sure that we could give it another go before the finals.

Overnight we fixed the problems that we had been having with the ROS messages (no longer needed to manually set the PID) and also implemented a few safety features. We added a depth monitor so that if we lost control and the AUV systems would be killed allowing the vehicle to float back to the surface. This was triggered if the AUV traveled below a certain depth or if the AUV was under the water for longer than a set time.

When it came to our final run we had unfortunate problems with drift on our IMU so the first run missed the gate completely and the second run hit the gate on the outside edge. We failed to qualify after coming so close however still had one more chance to impress the judges. We used this time to show of the robustness of our control and also our ability to quickly adapt and learn from mistakes. We explained the problems we had during qualifying on the first day and the systems we had put in place to prevent this happening again. The judges asked us to prove these systems so we told the sub to go down to the bottom, below its safe limits for depth. As soon as it reached its limits it shut the systems down and floated back to the surface. After this we packed up our equipment and loaded the car. Although this was not the result that we had hoped for we knew that we did as much as we could and didn’t give up right to the end.

Award Ceremony:

After packing up we made our way to the award ceremony. At SAUC-e every team gets an award, not just top 3 places so we knew that we would get something to return home with. At the beginning of the ceremony they said that this year the results were very controversial and that the final outcome was based on points earned, not necessarily just performance in final runs. This included points from papers submitted by the teams, posters, video log, static judging, impressing the judges and other factors.

First they announced the awards for teams that had not ranked top 3. This was in no order however as this finished we realized that we had not received an award. Most of the uwesub team were looking at each other confused. As third was announced a few of the uwesub team were asking each other what had happened. forgotten maybe? no one really knew. Then suddenly, catching everyone of guard . . .

Second Place – University of the West of England.

The judges had made this decision based on the quality of our paper and static judging, as well as there observations on how well the team worked together and how much we had accomplished in a small time.Second Place

This result took us by surprise a little but the judges agreed that it was well deserved. We had to follow the judges decision when it came to our qualifying run so we couldn’t really argue with there decision to give us second.uwesub team

This is the highest that the UWE team has ever ranked at SAUC-e and it was done with a new team and new vehicle. Just imagine what we could do next year with propper funding and some good equipment.

To celebrate we headed down to the local town of Lerici for a few drinks with some of the other teams before heading back for a well deserved sleep.

6th-7th  July – The journey back to Bristol:

The morning of the 26th we set off back to Bristol. The journey back was mostly the same as the trip there, we split it over 2 days again with a stay at Nancy over night. Only difference was that this time we decided to drive up over the alps instead of through them.

Hire car up in the alps

Driving through the alps was one of the greatest experiences ever. It was something that i will remember forever and was the perfect way to end our time at SAUC-e. It made me so glad that i had the opportunity to be involved with Project Phoenix and brought the realization that our work over the last few months had payed off.

Up where the air is clear

Big Thanks:

Thanks to our sponsors RAPID and HARWIN for the equipment and support that you have provided to the team. Thanks also to UWE for providing travel to the event and supporting development at the lab.

Most of all, thanks to the UWESUB team who’s effort made all this possible. Thanks for the countless late nights and weekends that were given up to testing. Thanks for the many hours that were spent organizing travel, hotels, sponsors, t-shirts and getting funds. Without it we would never have got this far.


“They are a real credit to the department, the robotics programme, and UWE.” – Director of UWE’s Science Communication Unit Professor Alan Winfield


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