GLOUCESTER – The robotic sailing team from Olin College in Needham wants, one day, to build a boat that will be able to sail itself across the Atlantic. First, however, these ambitious engineering students had to conquer Gloucester Harbor.
The group was one of 18 teams that gathered last week to participate in the seventh SailBot International Robotic Sailing Regatta, a competition that challenges high school and university teams to create
unmanned boats that can follow a course and steer around obstacles without human control.
For five sometimes rainy days, a fleet of scaled-down sailboats zigzagged through the water off Pavilion Beach as their creators watched, fingers crossed, from nearby boats. The robotic vessels, most 1 or 2 meters in length, competed for speed as well as accuracy and precision of navigation.
Teams came from as nearby as Gloucester High School and Endicott College in Beverly, and as far away as Vancouver and Wales. Most of the teams worked for months on their entries, assembling boats, designing robotic systems, and writing computer code.
The Gloucester High School team spent 18 hours just assembling the hull of one of its two boats.
“When they were working, it was unbelievable,” said junior Kaleb Church of seeing the boats take to the water.
The first SailBot competition was hosted by Queen’s University in Ontario in 2006. Each year attendees choose a new school, usually the previous year’s winner, to take over hosting and organizing duties for the following year’s regatta.
Last year’s event was hosted by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which also won the competition. Rather than hold the event in the same place, the teams voted for second-place finisher Olin to host the 2013 event.
Olin chose Gloucester on the suggestion of Iain Kerr, CEO of the seaport’s marine research group Ocean Alliance, who had previously collaborated with Andrew Bennett, associate professor of engineering at Olin and the main organizer of this year’s SailBot event.
At its core, the competition is an educational event that allows students to use engineering, design, and computer programming skills.
“It is a great challenge, because the students have to learn the electronics and the software and the sensors and they have to make them play nice,” said Bennett.
But participants also learn far more than coding and mechanics, they said.
The members of the Newburyport High School team got a lesson in working with budget restrictions when they tried to find a wind vane — a small piece that picks up the wind direction — for their boat. Commercially available vanes were far too expensive, so the group designed its own and used the school’s 3-D printer to fabricate the component.
“They’ve done it all,” said the team’s faculty adviser, Sarah Leadbeater. “The stuff they’ve learned is really, really, amazing.”
Generally, Bennett said, a team can put together a 1-meter boat for under $500. The 2-meter boats, preferred by more advanced teams, cost an average of $4,000 to build, he said.
The SailBot event also gave students a taste of what it will be like to work as engineers after graduation.
“You have a project to do, you have deadlines, and you can hit a brick wall. But you have to get over it,” said Olin sophomore Victoria Coleman.
For the city of Gloucester, cohosting the SailBot competition fit with its ongoing efforts to revitalize the harbor area. Facing a fishing industry in decline, the city has been looking for ways to bring new business, research, and educational activities to the historic port.
SailBot “showcases the working waterfront in a way that points toward the future,” Mayor Carolyn Kirk said.
Sailboats make a particularly good platform for learning robotics, because no matter how much students learn building their boats, the challenge is never complete, Bennett said.
“Sailing is one of those sports where it is easy to get started and impossible to perfect,” he said. “So no matter how much a team works on it, there’s always room to improve.”