Robot sailboats to race across Atlantic

Seagull poo on solar cells is primary tech snag

In the Irish Sea off Wales this week, a new kind of robot is taking to the waves. For once, this is not a military kill-droid, nor a securo-pork powered surveillance machine. Instead, we are seeing the debut of the fully-autonomous sailboat, which uses its own software to navigate out at sea. For now the uninhabited windjammers will stay relatively close to home, but next year their successors will race across the Atlantic.

"Roboat" of Austria: victor in '06 and frontrunner in '07.

The salty tech challenge event is called Microtransat, and it was conceived by boffins Yves Briere of the Ensica engineering institute in Toulouse and Mark Neal of Aberystwyth Uni. There was an inaugural 2006 meet in France, and this year teams from Wales, Toulouse, Canada and Austria are competing. A Portuguese vessel couldn't get ready in time.

The 2007 rules are still relatively relaxed, allowing entrants to use vessels remotely controlled by a computer over a comms link or even just a remote-controlled boat; though these options lose a lot of points. The idea is to produce a vessel no longer than 4m (ordinary sailing dinghy size*). The boat should be able to sail itself around waypoints without human input using no primary power other than sun and wind, though batteries may be carried.

Ultimately, the goal is to produce oceanographic survey platforms that could operate at sea for up to six months, probably sailing themselves out to areas of interest. They would send data back using satellite communications, and return periodically for repairs if possible; but their cost would be low enough that losses wouldn't be catastrophic. Existing, disposable oceanography buoys can cost $10,000 and last only a year or so before going out of service, apparently.

Races were carried out yesterday around triangular virtual courses off Aberystwyth, but most competitors were bedevilled by rough weather and technical snags. Dr Neal told the Reg that the Austrian entry "performed flawlessly," but the other windjammer-bots all succumbed to problems and had to be retrieved by chase boats. The French "iBoat" contenders were particularly handicapped by arriving very late, after which it was found that their boat's GPS would only work correctly when east of the Greenwich zero meridian. It should be noted, though, that even superfighter jets costing hundreds of millions are occasionally subject to this sort of snag.

Here's some Flash video of the iBoat in trials:

Tomorrow is the day of the "impress the judges" event, but details thus far are scanty. Neal says that "just surviving" in tough offshore conditions in the Irish Sea will represent a good effort, but adds that the Austrian front-runners may have a few surprises in store.

"They're playing it close to their chests so far," he said.

A high failure rate in relatively short duration race like this might not bode well for next year's transatlantic voyage, but Neal at least is undaunted.

"We'll definitely enter something from Aberystwyth," he says. Apparently the Welsh ocean-going sail-bot in 2008 will be based on a Topper dinghy, equipped with GPS, wind sensors and actuators for rudder and sails. There will be an Iridium satcomms modem allowing a two-way datalink, but its power requirements mean it will only be activated every few days.

Neal is confident overall regarding electrical power, saying that he plans to use flexible solar panels bonded to the decks for peak output of 60W and an average of 6W. The total power requirements should be only 3-4W, so there should be adequate juice: though it seems there are sometimes problems with seagull droppings covering the cells.

The main snags are mechanical failures in moving parts, and the risk of the tiny craft being mown down by inattentive big ships out at sea. Regarding the latter problem, says Neal, "there isn't much you can do that isn't incredibly power hungry," though the boats will carry radar reflectors.

How confident is Neal that the Aberystwyth robo-boat will actually make it to the Caribbean next year?

"Not terribly," he says frankly. "Fifty-fifty?"®

*Or in approved Reg units, as long as a pair of young adult moose standing arse to antler.

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