From the beginning of the Deepwater Horizon crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have been responsible for carrying out every attempt to stop the flow of oil, and their mixed record of success—installing lower marine riser package (LMRP) cap on June 3 but damaging the gas venting system on June 23, for example—reflects just how difficult is it to operate more than a mile below the surface.

Despite the legal wrangling over deepwater drilling, and with no end to the Gulf spill in sight one thing is clear—the role that ROVs play in the energy industry will grow over time. The Obama administration has made assurances that the U.S. will make a strong push toward renewable energy sources, but the country is likely 50 years away from shedding its reliance on oil, says Drew Michel, chairman of the ROV executive committee for the Marine Technology Society (MTS), a Columbia, Md., organization that advocates for ocean engineering technology. In the meantime, "we've got to get that oil from somewhere, and one of the places we'll get it is deepwater," he adds.

In addition to enabling drilling in ever-deeper waters worldwide, robot subs will also be instrumental in ramping up the installation of offshore turbines that generate electricity from the strong winds and tides found at sea, says Michel, one of the main organizers of the annual Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center's 2010 International ROV Competition, which challenges students to complete underwater missions using ROVs they design and build. "There's a lot more wind offshore, so we're going to be putting up a lot of wind turbines there."

This year's international MATE competition, sponsored in part by the MTS, kicked off Thursday and runs through the weekend at University of Hawaii at Hilo, where middle school, high school and college students will operate their ROVs to complete a simulated mission. This year's assignment, which takes place in a U.H. swimming pool, is to use an ROV to take sensor readings, plot data, and collect samples of geologic features and organisms in an area designed to resemble the Loihi undersea volcano. International competitors are divided into two categories—"Ranger" or "Explorer"—depending on skill level. Regional competitions also include a "Scout" level for beginners.

"The most difficult part of the competition is for the students to understand how to make things work underwater," Michel says. Students need to learn about neutral buoyancy, for example, so that their ROVs can complete tasks without unintentionally sinking to bottom or floating to the surface. "It's a whole different set of challenges to make something work underwater than to make it work on a concrete floor," he adds.

View a slide show of the 2010 regional MATE competitions in California and Florida