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But PVC had benefits. The air inside the pipe would create buoyancy as well as provide a waterproof housing for wiring. Cristian calculated the volume of air inside the pipes and realized immediately that they'd need ballast. He proposed housing the battery system on board, in a heavy waterproof case. It was a bold idea.

If they didn't have to run a power line down to the bot, their tether could be much thinner, making the bot more mobile. Since the competition required that their bot run through a series of seven exploration tasks—from taking depth measurements to locating and retrieving acoustic pingers—mobility was key. Most of the other teams wouldn't even consider putting their power supplies in the water.

A leak could take the whole system down. But if they couldn't figure out how to waterproof their case, Cristian argued, then they shouldn't be in an underwater contest. While other teams machined and welded metal frames, the guys broke out the rubber glue and began assembling the PVC pipe.

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They did the whole thing in one night, got high on the pungent fumes, and dubbed their new creation Stinky. Lorenzo painted it garish shades of blue, red, and yellow to designate the functionality of specific pipes. Every inch of PVC had a clear purpose. It was the type of machine only an engineer would describe as beautiful. Carl Hayden Community High School doesn't have a swimming pool, so one weekend in May, after about six weeks of work in the classroom, the team took Stinky to a scuba training pool in downtown Phoenix for its baptism.

Luis hefted the machine up and gently placed it in the water. They powered it up. Cristian had hacked together off-the-shelf joysticks, a motherboard, motors, and an array of onboard finger-sized video cameras, which now sent flickering images to black-and-white monitors on a folding picnic table.

Using five small electric trolling motors, the robot could spin and tilt in any direction. To move smoothly, two drivers had to coordinate their commands.

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The first thing they did was smash the robot into a wall. This thing's got power. Once we figure out how to drive it, we'll be the fastest team there. By early June, as the contest neared, the team had the hang of it. Stinky now buzzed through the water, dodging all obstacles.

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The drivers, Cristian and Oscar, could make the bot hover, spin in place, and angle up or down. They could send enough power to Stinky 's small engines to pull Luis around the pool. They felt like they had a good shot at not placing last. The pool was concealed under a black tarp—the contest organizers didn't want the students to get a peek at the layout of the mission.

Students from cities across the country—Miami; New Haven, Connecticut; Galveston, Texas; Long Beach, California; and half a dozen others—milled around the water's edge. The Carl Hayden teammates tried to hide their nervousness, but they were intimidated. Lorenzo had never seen so many white people in one place. He was also new to the ocean. He had seen it for the first time several months earlier on a school trip to San Diego.

It still unnerved him to see so much water. He said it was "incredifying"—incredible and terrifying at the same time. There were 12 of them—six ocean-engineering students, four mechanical engineers, and two computer science majors. Their robot was small, densely packed, and had a large ExxonMobil sticker emblazoned on the side.

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As Luis hoisted Stinky to the edge of the practice side of the pool, Cristian heard repressed snickering. It didn't give him a good feeling. He was proud of his robot, but he could see that it looked like a Geo Metro compared with the Lexuses and BMWs around the pool. He had thought that Lorenzo's paint job was nice. Now it just looked clownish. Things got worse when Luis lowered Stinky into the water. They noticed that the controls worked only intermittently.

When they brought Stinky back onto the pool deck, there were a few drops of water in the waterproof briefcase that housed the control system. The case must have warped on the trip from Arizona in the back of Ledge's truck.

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If the water had touched any of the controls, the system would have shorted out and simply stopped working. Cristian knew that they were faced with two serious problems: bad wiring and a leak. Oscar sketched out the situation. They'd have to resolder every wire going into the main controller in the next 12 hours. And they would either have to fix the leak or find something absorbent to keep moisture away from the onboard circuitry. An image from television flashed through Lorenzo's mind.

The Ralph's grocery store near the UCSB campus is done up to look like a hacienda, complete with a red tile roof, glaringly white walls, and freshly planted palms. The guys dropped Lorenzo off in front. It was his bright idea, after all. He wandered past the organic produce section, trying to build up his courage.

He passed an elderly lady examining eggplant—he was too embarrassed to ask her.

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Next, he saw a young woman in jeans shopping for shampoo. He wasn't used to approaching women, let alone well-dressed white women. He saw apprehension flash across her face. Maybe she thought he was trying to sell magazines or candy bars, but he steeled himself. He explained that he was building a robot for an underwater contest, and it was leaking. He wanted to soak up the water with tampons but didn't know which ones to buy. The woman broke into a big smile and led him to feminine hygiene. She handed him a box of O.

He stared at the ground, mumbled his thanks, and headed quickly for the checkout. Someone had to be well rested for the contest, so Cristian and Luis slept that night. Oscar and Lorenzo stayed up resoldering the entire control system. It was nerve-racking work. The wires were slightly thicker than a human hair, and there were 50 of them.

If the soldering iron got too close to a wire, it would melt and there'd be no time to rip the PVC and cable housing apart to fix it. One broken wire would destroy the whole system, forcing them to withdraw from the contest. By 2 in the morning, Oscar's eyesight was blurring, but he kept at it. Lorenzo held the wires in place while Oscar lowered the soldering gun. He dropped one last dab of alloy on the connection and sat back. Lorenzo flipped the power switch. Everything appeared to work again. On the day of the contest, the organizers purposely made it difficult to see what was happening under the water.

A set of high-powered fans blew across the surface of the pool, obscuring the view below and forcing teams to navigate by instrumentation alone. The side effect was that no one had a good sense of how the other teams were doing. He prayed that the tampons would work but then wondered if the Virgin got her period and whether it was appropriate for him to be praying to her about tampons.

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He tried to think of a different saint to pray to but couldn't come up with an appropriate one. The whir of Stinky 's propellers brought him back to the task at hand, extracting a water sample from a submerged container. The task was to withdraw milliliters of fluid from the container 12 feet below the surface. Its only opening was a small, half-inch pipe fitted with a one-way valve.

Though the Carl Hayden team didn't know it, MIT had designed an innovative system of bladders and pumps to carry out this task.