Getting outdoors by way of robot

UWL's Laurie Harmon shows off the live-camera function on a remotely operated vehicle, also known as an ROV, to a group of high school students at Chad Erickson Memorial Park in La Crosse.

UWL faculty member works with high school students on underwater exploration

Technology is sometimes blamed for our unwillingness to leave the couch. But for UW-La Crosse’s Laurie Harmon, technology creates opportunities – to explore the outdoors.

Harmon, chair of UWL’s Recreation Management and Therapeutic Recreation Department, convinced a group of high school students to join her at Chad Erickson Memorial Park in La Crosse bright and early on a recent Monday morning.

Her sale? The ability to pilot a robot.

“It looks friendly. It has a cute factor to it. You can’t deny it,” says Harmon with a smile. “It’s all kinds of fun to use and test out.”

The robot, also known as a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), is an underwater drone that gives users a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of bodies of water through a live-camera feed. Professionally, ROVs are used to explore hard-to-reach areas, preview large projects, and provide adaptability for users that are unable to search bodies of water themselves.

Harmon says her Recreation Management and Therapeutic Recreation students named the ROV “Sunny” because it “brings light everywhere.”

On this occasion: each student, using a control panel and small video monitor, had the opportunity to take the wheel to explore a nearby pond. After the “oohs and aahs” from takeoff, the student pilots continued to display soft grins as they controlled the robot’s movements with knobs and switches. One even likened the controls of the expensive and complicated device to that of an “RC Car.”

“We wanted to give (the students) the chance to get their hands on this tool to see what it was like, to see how to operate it, to maybe inspire them to think of other ways to interact with the outdoors,” says Harmon.

The high school students are part of a program known as The Mayor’s Crew – a collaboration between the City of La Crosse and the nonprofit WisCorps. The program aims to connect high school students with conservation and revitalization projects in their community. Harmon says events like this not only provide experience, but can also inspire young minds to think more about how they can leave a positive impact on their surroundings.

“UWL has created these opportunities to engage people with their local community and with their outdoors,” explains Harmon. “Moving forward, they might say ‘I know a little bit more about (the environment) and I want to help protect it.”