College students gear up for a regatta in Gloucester, Mass., but rather than practicing roll tacks and starts, they’re perfecting boat design and coding.
In a couple of months, students from 19 schools will race in Gloucester, Mass. But you won’t find anyone onboard their sailboats. In fact, you won’t even find anyone controlling these boats remotely for part of the competition. Sailbot, which has been held annually since 2006, gives students the opportunity to design boats that sail autonomously. In other words, the boats are programmed by the students to trim sails and change direction to get around the racecourse.
Drew Bennett, a professor of robotics and the Sailbot team’s mentor at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., which is hosting Sailbot this year, explains: “The amount of manual control depends on the race. In the fleet race, we allow full manual control. The other contests—navigational accuracy, station keeping, and the long-distance race—they all have to be autonomous.”
Colleges will race in three fleets according to size: 1-meter, 2-meter, and 4-meter. Boats are designed according to a box rule. For example, boats in the 2-meter class must be designed in a box that’s 2 meters long, 3 meters wide, and five meters high, from the tip of the mast to the bottom of the keel. “One team at the Naval Academy [in the 2010 Sailbot regatta] brought a trimaran with a wing sail,” says Bennett. “It didn’t work so well, but they got a special award for innovation. We want to encourage people to experiment.”
Olin College is a newcomer to the competition, having formed a team in 2011 that finished second at the 2012 Sailbot Regatta hosted by the University of British Columbia.
Olin races in Vancouver, B.C., at their first Sailbot regatta. Photo: Olin Sailbot
“It was our first attempt so we patterned our boat after the old America’s Cup 12 Meter hulls,” says Bennett. “We had a fairly large, tubby shape that made it easy to work inside, but we were really slow. This year the team went back to the drawing board and came up with a new hull design.
“Reliability seems to be a big issue for all the teams. I think we got second because our boat never broke down during the race. We weren’t the fastest boat; if we weren’t the hare, we were the tortoise.”
Reliability is a major focus as all the teams prepare for the regatta, which will be held from June 9 to 13. The University of British Columbia Sailbot Team is the defending champion, and a major focus is testing enough to ensure they’ve got a reliable boat to bring to the East Coast. “You can’t be successful unless you test the hell out of it,” says Kristoffer Vik Hansen, captain of the UBC Sailbot team. “Last year we had forty days on the water testing before the competition to go through all the challenges in the competition and try the worst-case scenarios.”
For most on the UBC and Olin teams, the experience is at least a partially novel one. UBC has 30 members on its team, and about half of them sail. “We have some really good sailors who have been to competitions,” says Vik Hansen, “and then we have some people who don’t even know the physics of sailing, but they’re into the engineering challenge.”
On Olin’s 50-member team, only a couple students have sailing experience. “Most of them are robotics geeks,” says Bennett. “Last year they admitted, ‘We have a great robot, but not so great of a sailor.’”
UBC Sailbot team members at the drawing board last November. Photo: UBC Sailbot