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Autonomous Sailboats Catch Some Waves
The SailBot 2013 competition tested the boats' ability to react to changing conditions in wind and water.
By Keith Barry, Wired - Filed Jul 16, 2013

More Design and Development stories
A student-built unmanned sailboat competition isn’t just at the leading edge of autonomous vehicle development. It sounds like a blast.

SailBot 2013saw 16 teams from colleges and high schools around the world competing to build boats that require no human input to navigate open waters.

While autonomous vehicle competitions have become somewhat commonplace, sailboats present an interesting challenge: They require instantaneous inputs that react to ever-changing conditions. And thanks to New England’s weather, the teams competing Gloucester, Mass., last month got everything from clear skies to 30-knot gusts. No boats were lost, but some capsized and had to be righted by hand.

“Sailing is a very interesting control problem, because unlike other types of autonomous vehicles, you can’t simply drive the motors in the direction you want to go,” said Brooks Willis, the upcoming year’s project manager for Olin College’s robotic sailing team. “Very little research has been done in this direction, which puts all of the teams close to the cutting edge of the field, which adds another layer of excitement.”

Olin hosted this year’s competition, but SailBot has been held in locations across North America since 2006. Boats are categorized according to size, with 1- and 2-meter boats competing in Gloucester. The students who built the robotic sailboats watched the competition from full-sized support vessels nearby. On shore, the spirit was generally collegial, with mutual learning a greater goal than navigational accuracy.

Though all boats get wind-direction sensors that help set sails and compasses to help with navigation, they lacked advanced equipment such as cameras or LIDAR.

“None of this year’s boats were directly aware of their surroundings,” said Willis. In future years, he expects a higher level of sophistication that will give their boats more situational awareness.

“In general, the biggest challenge teams face is figuring out what the robot is doing when it works but isn’t doing what you expect,” he said. “Once you confirm that the computer is able to set the position of sail and rudder, you essentially have to put it out on the water to make sure it is setting the sail and rudder correctly.”

As with all autonomous vehicles, there appears to be a bright future ahead for robotic sailboats. Undergrads from Aberystwyth University in Wales competed in SailBot 2013, but graduate students are working on a transatlantic crossing. And researchers at the University of Rhode Island are developing semi-autonomous sailboats as “smart buoys” that can be controlled remotely.

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