Frequently, there’s something foreign swimming around in the waters of Grace Lake, but it’s not an invasive species.
It’s a robot, and it’s searching for invasive species, picking up trash and other nuisances it encounters.
The robot was designed and constructed by team Aqua Mania, led by Bemidji High School senior Brendon Speck, who in sixth grade decided he would pursue a career in engineering.
“I’ve been doing mechanical stuff since I was very, very young,” said Speck, 18. “Designing things, like the robots, is fun, and I really like building things … I’m creative, just like the rest of the team. We know what works. We’re all pretty good with that.”
Speck is what one might call a high achiever. At 13 years old, he founded his own business – Speck Lawn Care – and now employs a staff of four.
His work regularly keeps him busy, but the July 2 windstorm that swept through the region compounded Speck’s already hectic schedule.
“It was crazy, let’s just leave it at that,” said Speck, who recalled working six 16-hours days a week plus eight hours on Sundays. “There was basically no fishing for me after the storm hit.”
Speck’s business, which began when a neighbor called his mother to ask if he would mow her lawn, has grown to service more than a dozen customers. He also works for Farden Township maintaining its public lands.
Speck plans to attend Bemidji State University for two years, in part so he can keep his business going until he transfers to North Dakota State University to pursue an engineering degree. At that point, he expects he’ll turn the business over to his younger brother, Ryan, who works for him.
The lawn care business provides his income now, but Speck long has planned to go into engineering, an area in which he already has proven himself successful.
He is the team leader of Aqua Mania, the underwater-robot team that also includes his brother Ryan, Brent Balmer and Kyle Norvold.
The foursome came together about four years ago, after they aged out of the First Lego League, a program through which students in grades 4-9 learn about robotics.
The team heard about a U.S. Navy program that fosters robotics skills. It provided the training and foundation for the creation of an underwater robot.
They were provided with a basic kit and encouraged to adapt the robot with modifications and attachments, such as an underground camera.
But after creating the robot, Aqua Mania wanted to do something with it. So the team contacted the Department of Natural Resources, which linked them with the Grace Lake Association.
“Brendon approached us to say he thought the aquatic robot would be able to assist with invasive species monitoring,” recalled Darrin Hoverson, hydrologist with the DNR. “This was a pretty unique scenario. It was a real applicable process to have them some monitoring for zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil.”
The 3-foot-by-5-foot robot travels much like a submarine, Speck said. It works in all seasons and has gone as low as 20 feet deep.
“I like to fish so it’s kind of like a collaboration, helping to clean up the place where I love to fish,” Speck said. “It’s helping out the lake and it’s a lot of fun.”
To date, the robot has not found any evidence of zebra mussels or Eurasian milfoil.
It has, however, brought the team accolades. Aqua Mania’s work won Grand Champion at the Beltrami County Fair and went on to win a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair.
As an individual, Speck at the State Fair won a Citizenship Award of Excellence – a purple ribbon – for a presentation on his volunteer work through the Headwaters Science Center and the First Lego League robotics competition.
In that presentation, he also discussed his appearance at the USA Science and Engineering Festival. Speck had been chosen to go to Washington, D.C., to showcase 4-H science programs.
“People got to see that 4-H is more than just agriculture,” Speck said of the festival, which featured a keynote address from the Mythbusters. “I would say nine out of 10 people came up to us and said those words, ‘I thought 4-H was just ag.’ That was the goal, to tell people, to teach people.”