Sailing Robots to Cross the Atlantic
By Steve Morrell
Photos by Aland University of Applied Sciences, UK
I think everyone who sets out on a cruise offshore on their sailboat likes to think they are autonomous, but here, autonomous means much more—with no humans onboard, and no one directing the boat from shore. And since it’s an autonomous sailboat, that means no engine onboard either, although they do have a solar-powered motor onboard to run a mechanical operation like the rudder or sails.
Autonomous sailboat racing has been in the works for many years, but the idea of an autonomous sailboat crossing the Atlantic was first conceived of back in 2005 by Dr. Mark Neal of Aberystwyth University in the UK and Dr. Yves Briere of the Institut Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace in Tolouse, France. The goal? The fastest autonomous sailboat to cross the Atlantic (in either direction) wins. But it’s turned out that the winner will be the first one to make the crossing. The race is known as the Microtransat Challenge and its first race was supposed to be in 2008, starting from Portugal. But that was delayed until 2010, and the start was moved to Ireland. There have been attempts every year since, but it’s turned out to be easier said than done.
These are not remote-controlled sailboats. These boats are designed to be completely autonomous, meaning an onboard computer is programmed to take the boat somewhere—across the Atlantic in this case. The boat needs to autonomously adjust the sails and rudder to the winds and currents as it crosses the Atlantic. On top of that, it needs to be able to handle extreme weather and ocean conditions.
There are rules to the Challenge. For example, the maximum length is set at 2.4 meters (8 feet), and all boats must have an obstacle/collision avoidance system onboard.
University teams and private businesses make up the teams that are working on the Challenge. In many cases, private businesses have helped in funding the university programs. The ultimate purpose of the Challenge is for ocean research, since the cost of an ocean research manned vessel can be $20,000 a day—an amount that would pay for a robotic sailboat for months of work. The Challenge has also become a very good educational tool. Teams have been working on the crossing for years and the attempts made rarely get far from home. It’s turned out to be a real challenge.
In 2017, three teams entered in the Challenge: Offshore Sensing AS, a private company that has used boat drones, some of which are sailboats, for ocean research; US Naval Academy; and Philip Smith of Cambridge, UK.
None of the boats crossed the Atlantic. The US Naval Academy (sending the boats east) had two boats entered. One lasted two days, the other 39 days. Both were picked up by fishing boats (one was named Aboat Time and the other, Trawler Bait). The Offshore Sensing boat made it the longest to 68 days. It too was picked up by a fishing boat, as was Philip Smith’s boat, which lasted 6 days. The latter two set off from Europe, heading west.
You can view the tracks on a map of the 2017 boats (go to transat.org/tracking/index.php and click on “Google earth”). Although one US Naval Academy boat got almost half way across the Atlantic, the other barely got off shore, as did the two that set off from Europe. All the boats’ tracks look like bugs crawling across the ground, regularly turning in different directions, meandering.
To help in this challenge, the World Robotic Sailing Championships came about as a spinoff from the Microtransat. The 2017 Championship was held in Norway on a fjord (with calm waters) and the boats had to recognize markers and round them in a traditional racecourse. Other competitions included were virtual anchoring, where a sailboat had to stay in one place for five minutes, and another was to detect and avoid an obstacle.
Another regatta is the International Robotic Sailing Competition, known as Sailbot. The 11th annual Sailbot was held at the Naval Academy in 2017. www.sailbot.org
Several teams around the world have joined in robotic sailing research, not only to be able to cross the Atlantic but to learn how to make these boats sail themselves and go wherever someone wants them to go.
One of the teams that has entered is at Aland University of Applied Sciences (in the UK), which has been developing robotic sailboats for several years (see attached photos) and entering in competitions since 2013. Although they did not enter the Challenge in 2017, they did purchase a rigid “wing” sail from a Swedish aircraft manufacturer and have mounted it on their 2.4m boat. They hope to enter it in this year’s Challenge.
You can learn more about robotic sailing by going to www.microtransat.org, www.roboticsailing.org, or just Google “robotic sailing.”