Lights, camera, inspiration

Alumni from MIT’s 2004 Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) Team and the Carl Hayden Community High School Falcon Robotics Team met this past November at the Edgerton Center to film a conversation about a period in their lives — almost 10 years ago — when they were competing neck-and-neck for first prize in the national MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) ROV Competition.

Back in 2004, the MIT ROV team, made up mostly of first and second-year students, was just getting off the ground. Another Edgerton-supported team, Project: ORCA, had won the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International RoboSub competition from 1998 to 2004, except in 2001 and 2003. The Falcon Robotics team from Phoenix, Ariz. – made up of four Mexican-American teenagers with very few resources – surprised everyone, winning the competition by one point and gaining the status implied by "beating MIT."

An article in Wired magazine, “La Vida Robot” by Joshua Davis, and coverage from major media outlets created an outpouring of support for the Carl Hayden students while also raising public consciousness about the plight of undocumented students. Edgerton Center Instructor Ed Moriarty suggested that the Edgerton Center fly the team out from Phoenix to celebrate their victory at MIT. “Passionate engineering knows no boundaries, and to celebrate these students’ impressive feat was the right thing to do,” said Moriarty. These plans, however, could not materialize because the students were undocumented and could not travel by air in a post-9/11 world.

Nine years later, a trip to MIT for Carl Hayden alumni

So on November 23, alumni from the Falcon Robotics Team (who could now travel legally) and the MIT ROV team came to MIT to participate in the documentary film “Underwater Dreams” by filmmaker Mary Mazzio of 50 Eggs Films.

Members of the Falcon Robotics Team (Luis Aranda, Lorenzo Santillan, Cristian Arcega, Oscar Vazquez, coach Fredi Lajvardi) and the MIT team (Kurt Stiehl ‘07, Lauren Cooney ’06, Jordan Stanway ’06, and Thaddeus Stefanov-Wagner ’06) gathered in the lab at the Edgerton Center to reflect on the competition and their lives since then.

Judges from the 2004 competition, Bryce Merrill and Martin Klein ’62, longtime friend and colleague of “Doc” Edgerton, came for the day of filming, as well as Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering Woodie Flowers SM ’68, MEng ’71, PhD ’73, and Edgerton Center Director J. Kim Vandiver, a professor of mechanical engineering. Students from the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science and other local schools also came to observe and participate.

A full day of filming

In a conversation moderated by Moriarty, the teams commiserated about the egregious mishaps they experienced at the 2004 competition. The Carl Hayden team’s soldered components, out of which the robot was made, melted in the hot Arizona sun en route to the competition. MIT’s ROV robot suffered catastrophic damage in transit and had to be rebuilt. Then, the day prior to the competition, the Carl Hayden team discovered that the mechanical housing of their robot was leaking. One of the teenage boys from the Carl Hayden team was sent to buy tampons from the local drugstore to use as a plug to keep water from leaking inside the robot.

Klein added his own wisdom to the conversation in a remark about using the right tool for the job. “Doc [Edgerton] was one of the world’s masters at solving problems while under duress,” he said. “Often challenges had to be solved out in the Pacific on a remote island or on a bouncing ship that is going 24 hours a day. It is 4 a.m., and you are tired and seasick, and everyone on board is counting on you to keep the equipment operational. You might have to seal a leak with some chewing gum, some sticky tape, or even a condom or tampon. But no matter what, you have to come home with results, not with excuses.”

“It’s still affecting my life, even 10 years after,” said Falcon Robotics alumnus Vazquez to an O’Bryant student who asked how the experience had changed his life. “It gave me a career in engineering; it helped me pay for college; it brought me to MIT today; it sent me on the right path.”

Celebrating the passion behind true engineering

For Moriarty, it was an intensely emotional experience. “It brought closure,” he said. “My hands were tied when I wanted to fly them in, because of their undocumented status. To relive their accomplishments when they were here, to see how far these individuals have come and how much they have overcome, and celebrate that with our alumni from the ROV team, with local students, with honored faculty, it was magical."

“Underwater Dreams” will screen in Washington, D.C., in late February. Film release dates and details will be posted on the Edgerton Center's Facebook and Twitter feeds. A Pantelion Films movie based on the team, starring Marisa Tomei and George Lopez, will release in fall 2014.