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NEWS | June 3, 2022

NSWC Panama City technical departments battle in Director’s Cup challenge

By Jeremy Roman NSWC PCD Public Affairs

After nearly a year of planning, design and production, three teams from each of Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division’s (NSWC PCD) technical departments clashed for the coveted 2022 Technical Director’s Cup Challenge trophy, May 20.

The annual competition charges Departments A - Littoral and Mine Warfare, E - Expeditionary and Maritime Systems and X - Science and Technology, to manufacture an autonomous vehicle to overcome the specific challenges that accompany the respective course. This year, the major challenge was to design a ‘robot’ that could traverse from water to land in order to locate specific areas on the navigation course with speed and precision.

“We design each year’s competition to teach teams technical skills they need to support our core mission areas,” said Dr. Patrick Walters, NSWC PCD Director’s Cup lead. “For example, this year competition focused on our expeditionary maneuver warfare mission area. It also was the first opportunity for many of our new professionals to lead and manage a technical effort.”

Director’s Cup teams consist of new NSWC PCD professionals with less than five years of experience in the workforce. The competition provides teams with the opportunity to enhance critical thinking and learn skillsets to further research, develop, test and evaluation efforts for the Department of the Navy.

“One of the purposes of this event is workforce development. It gives every competitor the opportunity to learn the skills they can use on future projects,” said Melanie MacBain, X Department team captain. “Now that our people have a bit more background on robot operating systems (ROS), autonomy and the construction of the vehicle, they can be more ready to jump on current or future projects that may need that, as well.” 

This year, the teams competed in three preliminary trials and two final events in an effort to score the most points and bring the trophy to their respective department with bragging rights. During the final two events, strong wind, currents and waves were a major obstacle the teams had to overcome. A Department’s team “The Bandits” created a duck boat design, E Department’s “Swag Surfers” created a hovercraft design to meet competition requirements, and X Department’s team “The aXolotls” vehicle used tracked wheels. How would each team fare?

“The three designs are very different, not just in terms of physical design, but in terms of computer and software architecture and it was interesting to see how they performed. Building autonomous robots that can perform in the real world is tough, perhaps tougher than it looks,” said A Department Team Captain Jared Wampler. “…the experience that new professionals get from being involved with the Director’s Cup is tremendous. I think it’s the most rewarding way to expose new engineers to real-world engineering and the lessons learned will be invaluable to their careers.”

Not only does experience and professional pride come from this competition, but some of the past designs and elements have gone on to be used in real-world projects according to Walters.

“We are hoping to patent the device we created for this competition,” said Navy Lt. Tim Grondin, E Department team captain. “It was an honor to be chosen to compete in the Directors Cup, to represent our department and work with my team, Zach and Justin. I am extremely proud of our innovations and creative contributions to science and technology this year.”

“This event encompasses the collaboration of a handful of new professionals who endeavor to develop technical solutions to meet simulated mission requirements. It embodies everything that we want to accomplish at our warfare center,” said Dr. Peter Adair, NSWC PCD technical director. “I’m confident the problem solving, the lessons learned and the relationships built throughout the competitive experience will not only serve our personnel well but also our Command and ultimately the Fleet. The more we engage and learn together, the better we can connect what we do here at the Navy lab with the Warfighters we serve.”  

The first Director’s Cup was held in 2015 and stemmed from a desire to facilitate working relationships across the departments while also providing each competitor with a unique experience. It forced them out of their comfort zones and provided new opportunities they may not see in their everyday work.

“I think the experience impacted each team differently. For example, I had very little exposure to autonomy prior to this event. Now, I hope to find a bridge between autonomy and the hydrodynamic simulations [I run daily] by using what I’ve learned about autonomy here to inform…my simulations,” said Jonathan Eastridge, X Department team member. “This event has also been really great because it provided an opportunity for people who would not normally work together to come together as a team. Since we have different work areas within our department, I might not have ever worked with these teammates if not for this competition.”

Many of the teams spent approximately 20 percent of their work week over the past 10 months to work on their projects. The Director’s Cup is not only a competition to produce an autonomous vehicle but more importantly aims to reinforce the infrastructure of and between each department to help the Navy Lab accomplish its mission—Ensuring Warfighting Dominance in the Littoral Battlespace.

“The teams worked though many challenges throughout the course of the year, refining their design and coming together as a team,” said Walters. “I want the competitors to walk away with confidence in their abilities. It is not an easy task to design and build an unmanned system this unique over a short period of time. Each team overcame many challenges to field a competitive platform.”

When the dust and the waves settled, X Department’s “aXolotls” scored the most points and was named the 2022 Technical Director’s Cup champions.