Challenged by the uncertain forces of hydrodynamics, roboticist yacht designers recently applied their engineering intellect and principles of naval architecture to move tiny robot sailboats through the water faster than others. Now in its 12th year, the International Robotic Sailing Competition, a.k.a. SailBot 2018, featured a cadre of competitors from across North America. It included secondary school, college, and graduate engineering students.
For the second year in a row, a team from Worcester Polytechnic Institute won the event, held in June 2018 on Lake Quinsigamond, near the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. WPI earned the right to host the event after winning last year’s SailBot competition in Annapolis, Md. Like the America’s Cup, winners get to host the next year’s event, so the Worcester, Mass.-based university will host the next competition for winning SailBot 2018.
A multifaceted design competition
“This project elegantly combined some of the toughest robotic challenges,” said Ken Stafford, co-advisor to the WPI team, professor of robotics engineering, and an avid sailor. “Certainly, there are a myriad of commercial ventures that need solutions for the problems the SailBot team tackled.”
Accurate computer vision is needed whether it’s for part-sorting or, as in the case of SailBot, obstacle avoidance and/or target recognition,” he added. “The nautical application of path-planning and navigation is applicable to virtually any autonomous vehicle. Sensor fusion, especially critical in the turbulent wind and water environment of SailBot, is part of what adds robustness to any robotic solution.”
Many of the designers were students and recent graduates – who are part sailor and a larger part engineer. Some students took sailing in their Physical Education class and learned the skill. This recreational knowledge, combined with their engineering studies, was important in building a vessel fit for operational flexibility.
The team members may operate the boat remotely from shore. In many events, however, the boat operates autonomously.
While the competition may sound like a fun-for-all event, the sailbots were actually designed with utilitarian purpose. The design intent is for the vessels to be used in open waters for oceanographic research, ocean surveillance, and pollution monitoring.
The designers in the WPI team applied their curiosity and skills, through trial and error, to improve performance, literally correct course, and tweak changes to the vessels’ structure and electronics.
Designed for real-world opportunities
“What I was particularly surprised to discover were the almost directly comparable systems now being developed by several start-up companies,” said Stafford. “Their business models highlight a real opportunity to produce lightweight, low-energy, long-endurance ocean drones that can do such things as monitor and report wind conditions, water temperatures, water quality, and ocean currents.”
The SailBot 2018 competition did not include a boat race, but rather other facets that include navigation tests, ability to stay on station, endurance, and collision avoidance. The competition was more challenging than typical design challenges for its many competitive venues. Teams compile points for their accomplishments and compete on that basis.
How SailBot 2018 will benefit other projects
Looking forward, sailbots may have an increasing role as the world comes to grips with building wind farms. Such projects will likely seek supporting resources to help move the project along in various ways, much in the same way drones are aiding construction and industrial projects.
“These data are becoming increasing important for surveying proposed sea-based wind farms, investigating ocean environment concerns such as liquid or solid pollutants, and improving weather forecasting,” said Stafford. “They can do this without the risk to general navigation or the protracted coordination required for a manned or anchored vessel.”
William Michalson, professor of electrical and computer engineering and one of the faculty advisors to WPI’s SailBot entry, described the challenge as a true test of readiness. “You are at the whim of what Mother Nature’s going to throw at you every day,” he said.