By Andrew Safer: A team of seven Memorial University engineering students entered The Missus, a 2-meter autonomous sailboat, in a robotic sailing competition that was held in Annapolis Maryland in mid-June. It was a first for Memorial. Project manager Nathan Smith, 26, and his colleagues had the time of their lives showcasing the “sailbot.” It was designed and built over two years by 25 students of Ocean and Naval Architectural Engineering and Electrical Engineering from Memorial and of Naval Architecture from the Marine Institute. Ages in the all-male team ranged from 18 to 28. The fifth international competition was hosted by the US Naval Academy and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.

“We got a lot of comments from all the judges about the quality of the workmanship,” Smith said with pride. “Our boat was incredibly well built for a student boat.” His team placed fourth against teams from the US Naval Academy (placed first), University of British Columbia (placed second), Royal Military College of Canada (placed third), US Naval Academy’s second boat (placed fifth), and Queen’s University (placed sixth).

Currently a fifth-year Ocean and Naval Architectural Engineering student, Smith had earned a Diploma in Robotics and Automation from Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario. Prior to this project he had worked on the mechanical integration of Marport’s SQX-1 AUV through Memorial’s co-op program.

Building the Components

The journey that brought Smith and his colleagues to the competition began in 2009 when Wojtek Pagacz, a third-year Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering student at Memorial and Smith—both lovers of sailing—came across the competition web site and suggested to some friends that they enter it. Leading up to this, a team of students from Memorial, Marine Institute, and College of the North Atlantic built a fully functioning ROV for the MATE International ROV Competition (organized by the MATE Center at Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, California and the Marine Technology Society’s ROV Committee).

“That furthered our desire to build something else robotic,” explained Smith. After two of the MATE students joined the team, Smith and his colleagues realized they could build the components themselves. The initial team bought a 1-metre model boat and outfitted it with custom electronics. Instead of buying a $400 weather station off-the-shelf, for example, they sourced the electronic parts and built their own in the student machine shop. “You tend to learn more from the stuff you do wrong,” said Smith. “If it worked out, you don’t need to reinvestigate it. If it’s wrong, you’ve got to look at it from many different angles.”

After they performed a test to see if they were able to control the boat remotely (they were), Mark Peters, a Marine Institute Naval Architecture student, gave them a mould of a racing cruiser he had designed and they proceeded to teach themselves how to build a composite foam-core-constructed hull. While some of the students were building the 2-meter model, others who were mechanically inclined started building winches, rudder controls, masts, and rigging. Working collaboratively, Smith noted, they learned about each other’s disciplines. “Naval architects don’t know a lot about electronics, and the electronics guys don’t know about boats,” he said. “Working with different people, we got to see what they bring to the table, and which discipline we really want to pursue.”

To achieve autonomous operation, the onboard electronics must integrate GPS and long-range Wi-Fi with an inertial measurement unit for compass reading, pitch, roll, and yaw. The “brain of the boat” is an integrated Arduino microcontroller that drives motor controllers. DC motors drive a gearing arrangement that operates the winches and a brake cable-based rudder. Based on the information the microcontroller receives from the weather station, a sea state is defined which activates the boat’s mechanical systems—for example, angling in a particular direction towards the wind enables the boat to travel forward. To provide shore-based control, they take waypoints from Google Earth and send them to the boat through a wireless controller built in a Tupperware box. “Missus knows what do with them,” said Smith.


[[wysiwyg_imageupload:79:height=370,width=286]]The Missus’ only tour of duty before the competition was a float across Long Pond. They spray painted the sailbot at 4:00 in the morning, put it in a box, and drove it to Annapolis where they reassembled “The Missus” before the big day. “She had been in the water but had never been sailed,” said Smith. “We took her from no operational autonomy to stationkeeping, and sailed around the point we were told to, in three days.” During the four-day competition, Memorial’s team completed missions in fleet racing, stationkeeping, and presentation. They weren’t able to complete the long-distance race, in which The Missus reached approximately 5 knots, because the keel got wrapped around the anchor cable of a 100-foot boat. “We were more worried about the other robot boats, not real boats,” Smith observed. “The luff of her sails started to tear apart in heavy winds.” But because the boat was built of foam-core fiberglass construction, The Missus didn’t fail. “Only the first layer of glass was punctured,” he added. “Building her that way was a good idea, in hindsight.”

Having gone steadily up the learning curve, Smith said, “We’ve worked with very fancy high-end racing boat materials and techniques (high-end composites, vacuum bagging, and implementation of carbon fibre) and now we’ve integrated that into our skill sets.”

Future Challenges

He and his teammates are already planning to build two new boats—a rigid-sail multihull and an oceangoing rigid-sail monohull—and upgrade The Missus for the next competition on June 9, 2012 at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. Seeing the other sailbots gave them ideas for improvements, but the transfer of ideas was reciprocal. “I think we pushed everyone a big step forward with regard to construction quality and the design of the boat,” said Smith. They are also going to try to break the world’s record and sail the monohull across the Atlantic from St. John’s to Cork, Ireland in the Microtransat challenge in early September 2012. Smith figures it’s at least a three-month crossing, noting that a boat launched by a French team made it 100 kilometres before it sank after they lost communication. He’s already thinking about the challenge of transferring knowledge between the senior and junior students .

This year’s $25,000 project (including travel) was supported by a $10,000 contribution from the Angus Bruneau Student Life Fund, as well as Mad Rock Marine Solutions, OP Fibreglass, and Napa Paint. The participants put in about $10,000 of their own money.

Reflecting on the experience, Smith said, “I think the opportunities you get at MUN’s school of Naval Architecture are second to none in the country. If you compare who we saw at the competition, the Marine Institute and Memorial are turning out some of the best and brightest—they’re very practical, hard-working and very competent engineers.” He’d like to see the competition continue long-term “so Memorial can show the rest of the country and North America that our school is turning out really creative thinkers in ocean technology.”

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