The 5th World Robotics Sailing Championships

18 September 2012

Interview with

Colin Sauze, Aberystwyth University

The 5th World Robotics Sailing Championships were held in Cardiff Bay, Wales, from 17th-21st September 2012.  The event saw 5 teams from around the world, pitting their robotic seafarer wits against one another in a variety of demanding challenges from collision avoidance to long distance sailing. Colin Sauze is a robotics researcher at Aberystwyth University.  He's also one of the organisers and a competitor in the championships, and he's with us from Cardiff.

Chris -   So, how did this competition get going?

World Robotic Sailing Championships, CardiffColin -   Quite a few years ago, I was at the end of my undergraduate course and beginning a PhD looking into robotic sailing and my PhD supervisor at that time was contacted by a guy from France called Yves Briere, who's a Professor at a university in Toulouse.  They had this crazy plan to race robotic sailboats across the Atlantic.  And so born out of that was something called the Microtransat Challenge, and the aim of that was that in 2008, we would sail with as many teams that were interested across the Atlantic.  And in 2007, we planned to do a warm-up race off the coast of Aberystwyth and in 2006 we did one in Toulouse.  Almost simultaneously, a group in Canada actually started the same idea, but on a slightly smaller scale, just racing 2-metre boats that were semi-remote control, semi-autonomous around and they call that competition SailBot.  When it got to 2008, we actually had some logistical issues getting the transatlantic race organised.  So, one of the teams who were competing from Austria with a guy called Roland Stelzer at the Austrian Institute for Innovative Computer Science founded what they called the World Robotic Sailing Championships, which was just to keep going this idea of having short, manageable races on lakes or just offshore where people could compete and sort of develop ideas and come together, and also, to attach that with a 1-day scientific conference on the whole robotic sailing field.

Chris -   So, the whole thing got together and now, you have an international community behind this endeavour.

Colin -   Yes.  I think there's about 20, 25 groups actively working on this worldwide of which we have 5 or 6 here with us this week.

Chris -   What are you actually working on?  What are the challenges involved in making a boat sail itself?

Colin -   So, there's a huge sort of, multidisciplinary set of challenges. The first is you've got to make something that floats, that will survive at sea, that will sail appropriately, that will be able to fight the currents.  You've got to make a computer system that can sense the wind, sense where the boat is going, sense its direction, and actually compute a sensible course, and then you've got to build something electrical and mechanical that will allow you to set a rudder and a sail appropriately, and actually facilitate you sailing that.  All that's got to work together and it's got to work together for probably several months at the time if you're ever going to cross the Atlantic or stay out at sea to do oceanographic monitoring.

Chris -   How big are the boats you're building?

Colin -   So, for the Microtransat, we've actually set a limit of 4 metres, mainly as a safety thing that if they should collide with anything, they're not going to do too much damage.  So, for the competition this week, we actually have the smallest boats of 53 centimetres long and they're off-the-shelf radio-controlled boats called Micromagics.  We actually have 2 groups bringing them and there's I think 7 of those in total.  The largest boat this week is actually our own which is called BeagleB and that's 3 ½ metres long and it's based on a sailing dinghy that's actually designed for a disabled sailor.

Chris -   So, that's quite big, isn't it?

Colin -   Yes.

Chris - So, it's not just a question of making something float and then obey pre-set commands.  This has got to do what really good yachtsmen and women do, reading the weather, reading the sea ahead, and reacting to change.

Colin -   Yes, it does.

Chris -   How do you programme that?

Colin -   Ours, we have a computer on-board that reads from a GPS, a wind sensor, and a compass.  It has a set of weigh points that it tries to hit and by evaluating those and setting the sail and rudder appropriately, it tries to hit them.  More long term though, we have some sort of research aims to try and start coping with things that fail and things that degrade, and how you might actually have to adjust the behaviour of the robot over time to cope with actuators that jam-up and maybe you can't move your sail as efficiently as you could before, or possibly you can't even sail certain courses.  You have to adjust your course and think about different routes.

Chris -   But what about other things like the tide?  At different stages of the tide, not only will it run in a different direction, it will also run more fiercely or with less force.  Can you sort of give it the charts and it will factor that in because obviously, a person who is a human doing this would know, "Right, I'm going to face X number of knots of tide at a certain point" and so, you'll compensate for that?

Colin -   Yes, you can build a tidal plan that tries to compensate for that.  The difficulty with small boats is sometimes the tidal current will actually be stronger than you can make your boat sail.

Chris - Exactly and a person would do something about that.  They'd say, "Right, I have to come up with an alternative strategy" and they go the other way.  The robot, what would that keep doing?  Would it just keep on relentlessly trying to go the right way until it just ends up on the rocks?

Colin -   Most of the robots at the moment would be that naïve and just try and do that.  It's an area of on-going research and there are certainly some people looking into trying to get around that one.  But it's not a simple problem, especially when you get things more complex than the tides.  You get tides combining with currents, combining with local conditions of the wind.

Chris -   What about other boats? Because we have this "International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea" that all people who get there RYA certificate and the international equivalents have to subscribe to a knowledge of, so we don't bash into each other, we pass to port and so on.  How do robots react when they see another boat coming?  How do they tell that is a boat in the distance, it's not a buoy or it's a rock, or a lighthouse, or just a big wave.

Colin -   Again, that's another on-going problem.  So, there's quite a few approaches to that.  One is that all commercial shipping carries a system called AIS, which is Automatic Identification System that actually transmits a radio broadcast, signalling their position.  So, one strategy is to pick up those broadcasts, but obviously that doesn't work for smaller boats that don't carry AIS.  The other thing is to start looking with a camera or with some kind of radar to try and scan the horizon, and work out where the obstacles are and try to avoid them that way and also, carrying basic things like navigation lights and radar reflectors so that other people see you, and don't run you over, hopefully.

Chris -   And is the idea of getting lots of people together internationally and introducing an aspect of competition, is that to sort of force the field forward a bit or is it just for fun?

Colin -   Well, both. It's for fun, but it's also...and it has made a huge difference in bringing the field forward.  We started with 3 teams in 2006.  We now have over 20 groups worldwide, actively working on this.

Chris -   Is this something that really will become an industry in the future?  Do we foresee a time when people will do away with Ellen MacArthur and you just put a robot on the boat instead?

Colin -   I think for actually sailing large passenger vessels, you will always have a human in the loop, just from a safety point of view.  But what we might see is an increased amount of automation.  But at the other end of the scale, what we envisage is that smaller boats might be deployed as oceanographic monitoring systems or for monitoring coastlines with radar to look for smugglers, or maybe going and sailing along transects in waters you don't want to send people into - maybe the Arctic or the southern ocean in winter.  So, that could really help with getting oceanography research and climate change research done without putting people at risk, and maybe something that's a bit more versatile than just drifting buoys that we tend to use at the moment.

Chris -   And how far away are we from a situation where you can foresee a robot boat being able to do a circumnavigation?

Colin -   Of the world?

Chris -   Yeah.

Colin -   At least a few years away I think from that one.  No one has made it across the Atlantic yet.  We've had 3 teams try - ourselves in 2010 and a team from Brest in France tried both last year and this year.  The team from Brest have done the best so far and I think they got about 200 miles before they lost track of their boat.  And actually, theirs washed up in Ireland a few weeks ago.

Chris -   In one piece?

Colin -   Mostly in one piece fortunately.

Chris -   So, what went wrong?

Colin -   They're not entirely sure yet.  I don't know if they've actually got it back.  It looked like something may have run over it or a wave may have broken the rigging off, but the actual hull looked quite intact from the pictures I saw.

Chris -   Thank you very much.


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