Annika Hustad, Haley McConnaughey and Hannah McConnaughey took their robot to Romania to compete in the Black Sea International ROV Competition. (Ashley McConnaughey)

Romania's Black Sea coast isn’t a popular beach destination for American teenagers. But three girls from Washington state headed to the Eastern European resort area last month not to bask in the sun but to compete in a contest for underwater robots.

Haley McConnaughey, Hannah McConnaughey and Annika Hustad built an underwater remote-operated vehicle (ROV) out of PVC pipe, the paper feeder from a printer, part of a boat’s water pump, pool noodles and other odds and ends. The ROV took on similar robots at the Black Sea International ROV Competition and Exhibition, which put the robots through eight timed challenges.

“It had to bring a treasure chest to the shore. It had to collect a sand sample,” 14-year-old Haley said after returning from Romania. “We had to race the ROV through three gates. It sounds rather easy . . . but because we were in open water . . . it was definitely one of the harder challenges.”

“I think the most challenging thing was nature itself,” said Hannah, 17. “The pounding waves.”

Despite the difficulties, the girls, known as Team Atlantis, took top honors among about a dozen high school teams. The prizes were modest: a trophy, electric components and robotic fish. But the experience wasn’t just about competing. The three were there partly to spread their enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The ROV, called Twelve, won in the high school division by completing a series of eight challenges in the least amount of time. (Ashley McConnaughey)

“We did a small outreach event with two small ROVs in an inflatable swimming pool,” Haley said. “When the little girls came, they wanted to stick around forever. The parents didn’t want the girls to get ideas. From what I understood, they didn’t find it appropriate.”

The McConnaughey sisters were encouraged from an early age. Their exposure to ROVs began nearly six years ago.

“It started originally as a group of home-schooling friends who were very into science and technology,” Haley said.

A friend’s older brother told them about the underwater robots.

“We decided to make our own, and we’ve been competing ever since,” Haley said.

They were supported not only by their parents but also by other residents of their small community, Whidbey Island. “We’ve had friends’ dads who are very good with electronics help us out,” Haley said.

Team members have changed over the years, and since the spring Atlantis has been just Hannah, Haley and Annika, who is 13. Even though they had built a robot for a regional competition this spring, they had to start from scratch for the Black Sea event. It tested their problem-solving skills.

“What might work for a pool might not work for open water,” Hannah said.

After many 12-hour days working on the project and the nearly 6,000-mile trip to Romania, the girls are looking toward other opportunities.

“I just want to get into a really good college to study business,” Hannah said. She explored marketing and public speaking as part of Team Atlantis.

Haley, who recently joined a high school robotics team with Annika, sees marine engineering as her future.

“For me the biggest thing is that we’ve only explored 2 percent of our oceans,” she said. “Everyone says space is the last frontier, but for me oceans are the last frontier.”

Learn more

Hannah and Haley McConnaughey said it’s not hard to make an ROV. Hannah suggested searching the Web for ideas. The girls also worked with the group Marine Advanced Technology Education,

Daryl Davidson, of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) Foundation, suggested other Web sites.

(Ask a parent before going online.)

SeaPerch ROV kit: SeaPerch is a simple, affordable kit.

RoboSub Competition: RoboSub is a competition for advanced robotic submarines built by student teams.

RoboBoat Competition: This event is
like RoboSub, but it involves boats.

RoboNation: Robotics enthusiasts of all ages can join this online community for free.

AUVSI Foundation: This organization encourages STEM education through hands-on robotic programs for students.

Christina Barron