But There’s No Water in Phoenix…

By Deane Barker on April 7, 2005

La Vida Robot: My buddy Matt tipped me off to these kids. They built an underwater robot that whipped a team from M.I.T. in the Marine Advanced Technology Underwater ROV CHampionship. Not only are they in high school, but they’re undocumented immigrants to boot. As such, they couldn’t qualify for the financial aid to even attend a place like M.I.T.

Across campus, in a second-floor windowless room, four students huddle around an odd, 3-foot-tall frame constructed of PVC pipe. They have equipped it with propellers, cameras, lights, a laser, depth detectors, pumps, an underwater microphone, and an articulated pincer. At the top sits a black, waterproof briefcase containing a nest of hacked processors, minuscule fans, and LEDs. It’s a cheap but astoundingly functional underwater robot capable of recording sonar pings and retrieving objects 50 feet below the surface.

The four teenagers who built it are all undocumented Mexican immigrants who came to this country through tunnels or hidden in the backseats of cars. They live in sheds and rooms without electricity. But over three days last summer, these kids from the desert proved they are among the smartest young underwater engineers in the country.