James Wu, Willows Class of 2009, a Harvard-Westlake School Graduate, and a sophomore at Cornell University, is a member of the Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (CUAUV) team, which won the International RoboSub competition last August. He recently shared his lifelong love of all things mechanical, especially robotics, with us.
How did you become interested in robotics? What sparked your curiosity?
I've been mechanically inclined for as long as I can remember. Transformers, trains, LEGOs–anything with various moving parts fascinated me. The first time I dabbled with robotics was in a LEGO Mindstorms class I took in 8th grade, at the Willows! That class really planted the seed for my future robotics endeavors.
When did you start working on robotics competitions?
I joined the Harvard-Westlake Robotics Team in 10th grade, curious to see what robotics was "really" like. We were building robots for the FIRST Robotics competitions, and it was many levels above what I did in middle school. It was fun to build robots for FIRST Robotics competitions, but challenging at the same time with the machines and materials we had.
Tell us about the AUVSI/ONR competition. What was it like? How long did your team work on the project? What challenges did your team face?
The International RoboSub Competition, sponsored by the AUVSI Foundation, is an annual competition that invites schools from around the world to compete in San Diego's TRANSDEC facility (an underwater acoustic test facility). The obstacles are different each year, but the competition generally tests the AUVs in maneuverability, vision, targeting, mechanical manipulation, and sonar detection.
The Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (CUAUV) team consists of about 40 undergraduates, with Mechanical, Electrical, Software, and Business sub-teams. We create a new vehicle within a 10-month design/fabrication cycle, only reusing aspects of previous vehicles that were either too expensive or would take too much time to completely remake (such as the Doppler Velocity Logger and some software code). Other than that, the team creates from scratch all the mechanical structures (hull, frame, enclosures, grabbers, etc), electrical boards, and code pertaining to the current year's competition. This past year at the 2014 RoboSub Competition, we won first place–our 5th win in the past 6 years of this competition.
Since we design a completely new vehicle each year, we do our best to improve on previous years' designs and innovate new ways to more efficiently and accurately complete the competition tasks.
As a result, every year brings new challenges that require meticulous attention to detail. For example, for the 2015 competition, we will implement a "mini" AUV that will detach from the main AUV so that both vehicles can simultaneously complete different tasks! The thing is, we've never done this before, so how the heck are we supposed to get this to work? That problem is just one of the many challenges we face this year, but don't worry - we'll get it to work.
What's next on your robotics horizon?
I plan on staying on CUAUV's mechanical team throughout my undergraduate years at Cornell. At the same time, I'm keeping my eye out for internships and jobs that will implement the active design process and teamwork I've learned to cherish on this team. Can't wait to see what new opportunities await me!
Do you have any advice for alumni interested in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) in general and robotics in particular?
For those still in high school: My high school's robotics team didn't win the competitions, but it encouraged me to apply my knowledge outside the classroom and into a real-world challenge–something I would not have learned otherwise. If you're interested in robotics, then give the FIRST competition a shot! It'll be difficult, but it'll give you a great foundation for the years to come.
Also, don't be afraid to talk to teachers about subjects outside the classroom. I had teachers who were fascinated by the newest discoveries and inventions and would gladly talk about them with their students. One teacher even helped me get a research internship at UCLA!
For college kids and up...well, I'm still a college kid, so not sure how much advice I can give to you. All I'd say is keep exploring academic fields and clubs you think you might be interested in (even if they seem hard or strange or out of your comfort zone), but don't forget to HAVE FUN!