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Clay County 4-H’ers test water robots

Josh Dockter, who lives near West Fargo, puts the finishing touches on a remotely operated vehicle before sending it into Lake Sallie in Detroit Lakes, Minn. on Saturday. Kia Farhang / The Forum

DETROIT LAKES, MINN. — Emily Dockter held two battery clips in her hands as she stood on the dock at Lake Sallie on Saturday.

“Black to black?” She asked the rest of her aquatic robotic crew. “Or black to red?”

Dockter, who lives north of West Fargo, was hooking up a battery in one of the last steps before she and the rest of her crew could pilot a camera-equipped robot on the water.

It’s still in the early stages, but one day, robots like the one tested on Lake Sallie could be used to track invasive species and water quality across the state.

And people like Dockter, one of five in the Clay County 4-H program for aquatic robots, could teach others how to pilot them.

The program, now in its fourth year, started with just a single robot kit designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Navy.

But that kit got old, and last year, the group was fixing it almost as much as they used it.

So they improvised, built their own robots and brought them to Lake Sallie for testing.

Right now, only the robot Dockter was hooking up is equipped with a camera. Donated by some University of Minnesota students and modified by the 4-H group, it’s much larger than the ones they built themselves.

Saturday’s test was mainly to see if the smaller remotely operated vehicles — or ROVs — worked, and they did.

Using handheld controls similar to those for remote control cars, the group could pilot the crafts out as far as their wiring would take them.

“You get used to (piloting) it,” said Josh Dockter, Emily’s brother. “But it’s pretty hard when it’s really windy like this.”

The vehicles don’t really look like robots. They’re oddly shaped masses of PVC pipe, wires, and the occasional weight to balance things out and make travel smoother.

But in more advanced forms, they could be used to patrol lakes for invasive species such as zebra mussels, said Joe Courneya, project coordinator for the Red River Basin Commission.

“We’re hoping these guys will get to that stage,” he said. “We plant the seeds … and they’re hopefully going to develop them into the functional activities out on the water.”

It’s also nice that the kids in the program are thinking about invasive species, Courneya said, because they’re getting more prevalent in Minnesota waters.

That will help change lake culture, he said, and slow the spread of aquatic invasive species.

“It’s not just the fishermen,” he said. “It’s really everybody building that understanding of how you have to take care of your resources.”

For Emily Dockter, aquatic robots make for a fun challenge. Unlike earlier robotics work she’s done, she’s now building for a purpose.

Dockter, who’s homeschooled, is entering her senior year of high school. Her ROV is garnished with colorful zip ties.

“That was the last one to be finished,” she said. “But that was because I was helping everybody else put theirs together.”