Most people automatically might think of robots as above-ground devices.

On Saturday at the USC Aiken pool, high school students from four county schools got a chance to compete with underwater robots through a program called SeaPerch.

Teams from Aiken High School, Midland Valley High School, North Augusta High School and Silver Bluff High School built robots to model Navy search and rescue missions.

“It's really fun,” said Midland Valley student Eddie Murphy. “It takes a great deal of teamwork and how to keep calm.”

Tony Negron, the Aiken High NJROTC commander, set up the project, serving as the program manager for the event, which included five separate competitions. At Aiken High, Fred Pilot, a Career and Technology Education teacher, provided instruction on building the models, while science teacher Edna Mills served as the adviser.

“Each team had a robot to build,” Pilot said. “One person 'on shore' had a remote control for the robots.”

The team members had to visually get the robot to go up and down and navigate a way to get it through hoops under water.

Negron learned about the opportunity about two years ago through the Office of Naval Research, also known as ONR. That organization and the Navy have looked for ways to get young people interested in ocean engineering. He moved forward with the venture when ONR provided grants for the robot kits and tools.

Aiken High had started working on the project earlier than the other schools. As a result, that school brought 18 teams to the competition. North Augusta and Midland Valley fielded four teams and Silver Bluff two.

Essentially, the remotely operated vehicle, also called an ROV, was operated by its human handlers through a wide range of assignments – among them an obstacle course, an underwater drag race and a salvaging “mission” with plastic rings attached to a cage on the pool floor. Mistakes in that process can lead to penalty points. Three Aiken High students volunteered to be in the water during one event.

“I was there to make sure to retrieve the robots if they got tangled up,” Joshua Livingston said.

David Smith, another Aiken High science teacher, served as a judge.

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001.