Robotic Sailing: The Navy and the Hobbyists

The 5th World Robotic Sailing Championships took place in Cardiff in September 2012. To find out more about the teams taking part, we spoke to Professor Paul Miller, from the US...
18 September 2012

Interview with 

Professor Paul Miller, US Naval Academy; Mariano Alvira from Seascope...


The 5th World Robotic Sailing Championships took place in Cardiff in September 2012.  To find out more about the teams taking part, we spoke to Professor Paul Miller, from the US Naval Academy, and Mariano Alvira from Seascope...

Chris -   Paul, first to you.  Why is the US Navy dabbling in this?  What are you hoping to learn?

Paul -   Well, the main reason we're doing this is it has application for our students to practice their skills and to develop their undergraduate programme.  Naval architecture is designing ships and building ships, and it's really tough at the undergraduate level to actually build a whole ship.  But at the smaller scale, just 2 metres long, our students can design, build, and operate the boat in their senior year.

Chris -   I presume also, if you can get a robot to sail boats for you, it means that you wouldn't have to have expensive sailors aboard them and that might be one reason why the US military is interested.

World Robotic Sailing Championships 2012Paul -   Well, one of the projects we've been looking at is an oceanographic research platform.  We've tested sending the boat out, and the boats cost around 4,000 or 5,000 US dollars and it'll be able to go out and take depth soundings after a storm for instance to see how much silting has occurred.  That would replace a vessel that may cost 10,000 or 15,000 dollars a day to operate.  So, we're returning a lot of savings.

Chris -   What are the big problems that you're struggling with in order to get boats that will do what Colin was saying earlier and come across the Atlantic?  So, you guys on the eastern seaboard and that beautiful city of Boston where I know Mariano is from - he's going to talk to us shortly - so that you can come and see us here in England.

Paul -   Our biggest problem so far has actually been power management.  The boats, well they're powered by the sails.  Their computers and their servo controllers, for instance for the rudder and the winds that controls the sail, do require electricity.  But the boats only weigh about 40 pounds and there may be only room for a few pounds of batteries.  So, how do we generate that power in all weather conditions to maintain that computer operation?

Chris -   But batteries have come a long way and being out under the Sun every day, you must be able to get quite a bit of energy from solar or maybe even wind.

Paul -   We can get some solar power and we're hoping that that will be enough but actually, the trade-off is that if you made the boat big enough to carry a lot of solar panels, it would actually become too heavy and slow.  So, we're concentrating on a fast, small boat that would have very small solar panels and maybe a small wind generator in order to produce the power.  But like any other wind-driven device, you need wind make it work.

Chris -   Let's switch to Mariano Alvira who is from Seascope in the US and you've come over also for the Robotic Boat Racing Championship.  What are you entering Mariano?

Mariano -   We're entering 2 boats.  The first is a smaller half-metre boat that's a kit class and then the second boat is a 1-metre boat which is entirely custom made.

Chris -   Unlike Paul and Colin who are both affiliated to professional organisations or universities and so on, you are doing this as a hobby...

Mariano -   Yes, it's myself and my girlfriend Taylor.  We do this for fun.

Chris -   So, what are the things that you're working on with your boat?  Is it just literally staying in the race or are you hoping to win?

Mariano -   Our biggest problem is primarily boat issues.  We're not boat designers, we're not very experienced in that, but we're very good with electrical things and mechanical things, and software in general.  So, for instance, last year, one of our boats sank right before the contest and we've learned since then how to make boats not sink, which is sort of a big deal.

Chris -   That kind of matters, doesn't it?

Mariano -   Yeah, it turns out to be pretty important.

Chris -   And Paul, so will you be keeping an eye on what Mariano is up to and if it looks promising then the navy will nick it?

Paul -   Probably.  [Laughs]

Mariano -   Excellent!  [Laughs]

Chris -   You must have quite a lot of sort of translation going on here between what people like Mariano come up with the kind of work you do for fun, but then also, you see potential, and you could translate that back into industry and also into what the navy needs to do.

Paul -   Absolutely.  The beauty of these competitions is by interacting with the engineers and scientists from around the world, not only do we learn different techniques for making these boats work, but we also establish great relationships with the other people.  But some of these very clever ideas that folks have come up with, I bring back to the classroom and then my students benefit from that wider range of thinking.  And some of those applications may end up benefiting the navy in the future.

Chris -   So tell us about the vessels that you're putting into the race and what are the odds of you winning?

Paul -   Well, the boats that we have are all completely designed, built and operated by our undergraduate students, and each year, they'll do a whole new boat design.  So, we have now our 5th generation boat although the one we brought to this competition is our older 3rd generation boat.  What we found is that when it is actually working, it is quite fast.  The downside is, it doesn't always work.  There are those pesky electronic devices inside that once they get wet, they just don't like to work.

Chris -   Oh dear!  That's pretty fundamental, boats go near water.

Paul -   Yes, it is.

Chris -   So, what can you do?

Paul -   Well, we try very hard to make boats watertight.  Actually, one of our tests is we take the boat, we submerge it underwater for 2 days and theoretically, the boat then comes up dry.  And this boat has passed that test numerous times, but every time we go in and work on it, there is a chance that one of those seals doesn't work anymore, and we may get another leak.

Chris -   So, is it quite literally that you've got little motors and things which are winding all the sails and then that kind of thing?  Is that how they're actually working and if so, how do you keep that dry?

Paul -   That is the case on this 3rd generation boat.  Our later boat uses a servo-hydraulic type system which is much more watertight and more reliable, but does draw more power.  On these earlier boats, they're actually are using model scale robotic sailing devices, servos, and they do come through the deck.  And so, there is a watertight seal at the deck that a winch drum for instance goes through.  And in one case, we actually used balloons as the seal.


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