Robotics with Physics II Class at the Boat Races
This year’s cardboard boat races, held in the Lake Forest High School pool – an annual event that challenges Physics students to create boats from scratch – featured the maiden voyages of the first robotic submarines. With grant funding from the LFHS Foundation, Robotics with Physics II students built their own motorized, robotic submarines equipped with marine video cameras that can capture the carboard boat race from underneath. As the boat captains tested their crafts’ initial flotation, the robotic subs drifted from the edge of the pool and navigated toward the ship’s hulls to film them in motion. Early in the first race, the Physics students’ boats were holding up well, each carrying one student who paddled the boat across the pool. But when one boat exploded and sank, the sub built by Jacob Phelps, Eric Hill and Andrew Javier was there to catch the event on video, adding excitement to the fun of testing the watercrafts’ seaworthiness. Dozens of parents and students cheered the race from the pool balcony. The fastest boat of the day was piloted by Ashley Alghini; she built it with Paige Halminiak, Maddie Marshall and Tate Dahlgren.

The Robotics with Physics II students are learning about buoyancy, velocity and propulsion from the submarine-style robot, the first of its kind in Chicago-area high schools. Having mastered terrestrial robots in the LFHS Makerspace, a student asked if he could try to build a submarine. “He built the prototype, and we built a class around it!” Robotics teacher Joe Dudeck said.
Getting Ready to Launch
Robotic Submarine in Action
A $3,600 Foundation grant purchased four SeaMATE Barracudas, robotic kits that include the pieces necessary to build part of the submarine, including marine motors. The students build the submarines from their own designs, making detailed sketches and important calculations so the sub won’t sink of its own weight. They use the LFHS 3-D printers or lasers to make custom parts to create the structure of the submarine, and then attach a lightweight video camera to it for underwater viewing.

“It’s harder than you think,” Physics teacher Matt Wilen said. “Submarines use the Archimedes principal to achieve neutral buoyancy, which keeps them from either floating on the surface or sinking to the bottom. Subs must displace the amount of water that is equivalent to their weight. One of the many calculations the students must make as they design their own submarine is the amount of air they will put in the hollow tubes that make up the structure and help it float,” he said.

By making these calculations, the students are studying buoyancy, the volume of air, and water displacement – well before the sub is built and ready for its maneuverability and propulsion tests. Each student’s goal is to design and build a submarine that is neutrally buoyant, can carry a video camera and maneuver 360 degrees. They learn a lot through trial and error.
“It’s incredible! The students program and build everything themselves. They are studying hydrodynamics, which can lead to any of the engineering fields – hydraulic, mechanical, electrical, computer and environmental engineering. We are so glad that the Foundation understands our need to keep the technology up to date. Not only does it keep the kids interested, it’s the technology that they’ll see in college.”
~Joe Dudeck
Dudeck sees the field of robotics following the same arc as the computer-related fields. What began in someone’s garage has evolved into an entire industry, he says, one that now demands educated employees who can fix and improve each robotic machine. 

“Robotics makes it possible to reach places that we can’t go – whether it’s the Mars Rover or a moving camera at the bottom of a lake. It opens our eyes like never before,” he said.

Wilen predicts that other classes will use the robotic submarines in different ways. “If we were to take this submarine outside to a pond, for example, it could help Biology students learn about the ecosystem within view of the camera. Physics and Engineering students may be more interested in where they place the motors, which can change how the robot maneuvers – up and down, a barrel roll or a horizontal spin. It’s fun and it’s a great learning experience,” he said.
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