Building a better robot submarine? Take your inspiration from Star Wars

A robot submarine inspired by one of the most menacing pieces of machinery in the Star Wars universe will soon be put to the test in a San Diego swimming pool.

U of A team designed drone to look and act like TIE fighter ships in Darth Vader's Imperial Fleet

Students at the University of Alberta have designed a fully autonomous robotic submarine. (University of Alberta)

A robot submarine inspired by one of the most menacing pieces of machinery in the Star Wars universe will soon be put to the test in a San Diego swimming pool.

The robot, constructed by the Autonomous Robotic Vehicle Project team at the University of Alberta, has come close to victory before and the team is hoping 2017 will be its year.

They will put their special ship to the test next month at the AUVSI Foundation's RoboSub Competition in California when the chrome contraption tries to complete an underwater obstacle course.

The drone was designed to look and act like the TIE fighter ships in Darth Vader's Imperial Fleet.

Carried aboard Star Destroyers and battle stations, TIE fighters were single-pilot vehicles designed for fast-paced fights with Rebel X-wings and other starfighters.

"Our new robot is designed based on a Star Wars ship but it's also an underwater submarine," said Noni Hua, the software team lead for the Autonomous Robotic Vehicle Project.

"So we have a big glass hole going through it, you can see all the components inside. It's pretty exciting, and on the outside, it has a metal framework which looks a lot like the one from Star Wars."

Torpedoes, thrusters, and underwater vision

Named Auri, the drone deftly navigates underwater and is rigged to shoot torpedoes at enemy machines.

With two onboard navigation cameras, power thrusters and sonar, it can easily manoeuvre around buoys, move toward sounds and manipulate objects.

And the best part, no remote control is necessary.

Much-like the self-driving cars of the future, the drone is fully autonomous. It operates based on its own master programming, not commands provided by an operator.

"Because it's self-driving it must have intelligence," Hua said Monday in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Our software team is basically responsible for writing its brain. We have a visions system that has video streaming going through all the time … and we do algorithms on it so it knows how to react to what it sees."

The machine was designed specifically for robot competitions, and is the latest creation by the long-standing campus club.

In 2015, the team finished eighth out of 38, and was named the top Canadian competitor. But by 2016, the robot being used was showing signs of wear.

The team launched a fundraising campaign to build a new sub.With thousands of dollars in donations and sponsorships, and 10 months of construction and development, Auri was born.

'My goal is to finish No. 1'

The special ship will compete against 44 other robot subs in a 30-minute underwater obstacle course, where it will be asked to show its target practice and treasure-collecting skills.

"There are eight tasks the robot has to complete in 30 minutes, and it has to complete them without any communication from us," said Jon Machinski, the business team lead for the project.

"The robot has to identify where it is, where it needs to go, identify the correct the task and also know if it has succeeded in the task or failed, and move on accordingly.

"We hope to place in the finals and my goal is to finish No. 1."

The international competition is designed to inspire the next generation of engineers and buildings, but it's also a whole lot of fun.

"I feel happy, really happy, and I've found friends through this [project.] It's really exciting," said Hua.

"I've always loved robots since I was kid."