Robotic sailing is an unsolved problem. When humans sail they must process multitudes of information to decide what actions they should take. The best sailors can’t even identify why they do what they do, only that it “feels right”. If humans don’t even know how they are able to make snap decisions on the open sea, how can we program a robot to do the same?
This is the challenge taken up by the Olin Robotic Sailing team. Check out their website, www.olinaquabots.com, or contact them on twitter, where they are @OlinAquaBots.
The team consisted of ~30 undergraudate students studying Mechancial Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Computer Science. While we had an academic adviser, the team was entirely student led. I was lucky enough to be Captain and Co-captain for two years.
This was my first experience taking on a leadership role in a large interdisciplinary team and I learned countless invaluable skills ranging from anticipating roadblocks to interpersonal conflict resolution to fundraising. Most importantly, I learned how to look at a big complicated problem and break it down into solvable parts, and then work with subject matter experts to solve those parts such that they accrued to a elegantly designed whole.
Our mission was to design and build an autonomous sailboat capable of running long-term mid-ocean research missions. To this end, we also participated in the annual SailBot autonomous sailing competition (sailbot.org). We came in first and third during my time with the team, but most importantly, we learned what it meant to be part of a project that had a life outside of the classroom. No lecture hall can prepare you for what it is like to debug a motor failure on a rocking dock in a torrential downpour.
The Fleet Race
A classic sailing race, this triangular course is designed to test the boat’s logic when going up and cross wind.
This event tests your boat’s ability to precisely navigate a course, requiring sharp turns around downwind buoys and a final stretch upwind ending in a finish line only three meters wide. This tests the limits of sensors, latency, and autonomous logic in these boats.
The goal of this event is to stay inside of a 40 by 40 meter rectangle for exactly five minutes. Leave too early and you’re disqualified and every second you stay in the rectangle after the five minutes are up, you are docked a point. In addition to your boat’s ability to reliably continue sailing within an area defined by four very specific GPS coordinates, this event tests your team’s ability to strategize about how best to leverage your boat’s strengths to increase the precision of your exit time.
This location-dependent course tests the boat’s ability to withstand variable conditions as it passes through different locations, battery life, and mechanical and electrical sturdiness. These courses, either limited by time (eight hours) or distance (ten kilometers), are a trial by fire of the seaworthiness of the vessel.
The final event tests both the boat in the elegance of its design and the team in their presentation skills. A major goal of the competition is to foster mutual education and collaboration, which would be impossible without sharing what your team learned with the other competitors.