All Aboard? Not on This Autonomous Ship
At SailBot 2013, 16 high school and collegiate teams competed against one another to see which team's sailboat would lead the pack. However, this was not your ordinary sailboat competition. At SailBot, all boats are unmanned and are required to have absolutely no human input in order navigate through a variety of aquatic challenges.
The competition, hosted by Olin College in Gloucester, Massachusetts, looked to go beyond other autonomous vehicle competitions by testing the teams’ ability to adapt to the rapidly changing demands that sailboats are known for.
Brooks Willis, Olin College’s future robotic sailing team project manager said, “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. 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.”
On top of that, the boats dealt with everything from clear skies to 30-knot gusts of winds.
At the event, the boats are separated into classes based on their sizes, either one or two meters. All boats were allowed to use wind-direction sensors to help them navigate the open waters and set their sails, however, advanced equipment such as cameras or LIDAR were not used.
“None of this year’s boats were directly aware of their surroundings,” said Willis. “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. 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.”
Like RoboCup, SailBot isn’t all about cutthroat competition. In these events, the competition is fun but teams also aspire to learn from one another in order to advance the field, in this case, vehicle autonomy. Some boats may have capsized and needed to be manually righted, but no boats were lost, suggesting a bright future in store for robotic sailboats of the future.
At this year’s SailBot, overall winners included The University of British Columbia in the 2-Meter competition and Albemarle High School MESA in the 1-Meter Competition. Currently, Aberystwyth University graduate students are hard at work to make a transatlantic crossing possible for these robotic sailboats, while researchers at the University of Rhode Island are looking to adapt the technology to create semi-autonomous “smart buoys.”