Robot boat sails into history by finishing Atlantic crossing
A small boat drifted steadily eastward. It drifted all summer. It drifted across the North Atlantic. It drifted until it neared the Irish coast. It made history. It became the first unmanned sailboat to cross the Atlantic.
It is called SB Met. It was built by Norwegian company Offshore Sensing AS. It reached the finish line of the Microtransat Challenge. It is for robotic boats. This was on Aug. 26. It finished two and a half months after setting off from Newfoundland. That's according to preliminary data.
It's a milestone that shows the technology for unmanned boats is robust. It can carry out extended missions. Such missions can save money. It can cut costs for ocean research. It can cut costs for border security. And it can cut costs for surveillance in rough or remote waters. They're part of wider efforts to develop autonomous marine vessels. Such vessels include robotic ferries. It includes cargo and container ships. These could be operating by the end of the decade. This could outpace attempts to commercialize self-driving cars.
"We've proved that it's possible to do." That's according to David Peddie. He is CEO of Offshore Sensing. It created the oceangoing drones. They are known as Sailbuoys. "The North Atlantic is one of the toughest areas to cross." Completing the challenge "really proves that it's a long endurance vehicle for pretty much any condition the sea can throw at you," he said.
Boats up to 2.4 meters long can sail between Europe and the Caribbean or North America and Ireland. That's under Microtransat's rules. They must regularly transmit location data.
The Sailbuoy competed in the "unmanned" class. It allows operators to change its course along the way. There's a separate "autonomous" class. It prohibits any such communication.
Autonomous boats face storms that bring fierce gales and high waves. They also face numerous seaborne hazards. Self-driving cars have to contend with pedestrians. They also have to content with other traffic.
The Microtransat began in 2010. There have been more than 20 previous attempts by various teams to complete. These have ended in failure. Robot boats got caught in fishing nets. They were retrieved by ships. Some were lost. That's according to the race website. Peddie said his biggest fear was that a passing boat would pick up the two-meter, 60 kilogram (130 pound) vessel as it neared the finish.
The company is in a niche field. There are only a few other players. U.S. startup Saildrone is building a fleet of seven-meter "unmanned surface vehicles." They can spend up to 12 months gathering ocean data. Liquid Robotics is owned by Boeing. It makes the Wave Glider. It is a research platform. It uses wave rather than wind power for propulsion.
Bigger unmanned ships are coming, too. The International Maritime Organization is reviewing certain implications. These include safety. It includes security. And it includes environmental impact.
Offshore Sensing has built 14 Sailbuoys. They have a surfboard-shaped deck. It is covered in solar panels. The panels power the onboard technology. A rigid trapezoidal sail is mounted near the bow. It propels the vessel. In company videos, it looks like a toy tossed about by waves and passing ships. This makes its achievement seem all the more unlikely.
Peddie says robotic sailboats offer important advantages. Unlike drifting buoys, they can loiter in one place. They're nimbler. And they are cheaper than research vessels.
"These vehicles can do stuff which you cannot do with a traditional vehicle, especially in dangerous areas," such as a hurricane's path, Peddie said.
Sailbuoys can be fitted with sensors. These measure waves. They measure ocean salinity. And they measure oxygen levels. They can be fitted with echo sounders. These look for fish eggs and larvae. They can be fitted with transmitters. These communicate with undersea equipment. They sell for about $175,000. This is similar to the cost of renting a research vessel for a few days.
"The great advantage is that you can collect an awful lot of data for very low cost," Peddie said.
The annual World Robot Sailing Championship is a spinoff contest. It is held in late August. It is held in the English port city of Southampton. It also showcases robotic sailing technology.
Teams came from all over. They came from Britain. They came from France. They came from Finland. And they came from China. The teams were from universities. They put their machines to the test. Challenges included collision avoidance. It included area scanning. For scanning, vessels have to cover as much of an area as possible.
Self-sailing boats operate on similar principles to self-driving cars. They use sensors. These scan their surroundings. They feed the data to an artificial intelligence system. It gives instructions to the vehicle.
A team from France's ENSTA Bretagne graduate engineering research institute dominated the first challenge. It was a race around a triangle-shaped course. Servo winches controlled the two transparent plastic sails and the rudder. Wind, GPS and compass sensors fed readings to an onboard computer.
Others didn't fare so well. One of the two Chinese teams couldn't stop their boat. It was pushed way off course. It was pushed by the strong tide.
"Other ships are thin and long. Ours is too wide and fat." That's according to Hou Chunxiao. He was with the Shanghai Jiaotong University team. Theirs was a joint collaboration. It was between students and staff from a maritime company. It was run by their thesis supervisor.
There are many things making it easier to build self-sailing boats. These include smaller and lighter electronics. It includes better solar panels. It includes 3D printing. And it includes other technological advances. That's according to the competitors.
"We talk more about autonomous cars or drones, but sailboats are also a big thing," said Ulysse Vautier. He is with the Plymouth University team. "There's so much to discover on the ocean. With the environmental and ecological problems we face today," autonomous sailing boats are an energy-efficient way to do ocean research, Vautier said. He added that future uses could include swarms of sailing drones. These could scan the sea floor for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
And there will be new variations of the contest to come.
Sauze said, "the challenge is to do it faster, cheaper and do it with a smaller boat."