Canadian Robot Boat Threatens Sailing's Legacy of Human Warmth, Relatability

Canadian engineering students want to send an autonomous sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

by Jordan Pearson
Feb 6 2015, 6:10pm

​Image: ​Vimeo

​Nobody has ever successfully sent a robotic sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean. Several teams have tried, only to have their autonomous vessels swallowed by rough seas. Now, a group of engineering students is going to send a lonely robot sailing vessel from Newfoundland, Canada to the Irish coast, the odds be damned.

The 60-odd strong team of students building the robot boat is based at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where they've been strategizing, researching, testing, and building the boat for over two years along with a host of academic advisors and corporate sponsors. In July, they're going to move the "sailbot", as they call it, to St. John's Newfoundland, where they will finalize the build and launch it across the ocean in August as part of the 2015 Microtransat Challenge.

Said challenge requires teams to build an autonomous sailboat across the Atlantic, and every attempt so far has been met with disaster. Only one robot boat—Scout—has ever made it more than 100 miles out into the ocean, but it too eventually fell victim to some kind of unknown catastrophe out among the waves. And it wasn't even a sailboat. 

Actually designing a boat that can go the distance would be, in this context, a major achievement, and the technology that went into a successful autonomous boat could trickle down into other sectors.

"There are a lot of little robots that go around and work in controlled environments like a factory floor, but here we have something that's working against everything in its environment—electronics are not very fond of salt water," said team captain Kristoffer Vik Hansen. "You're going through an environment that's not one a single plane, you're moving up and down and side-to-side, it's just a huge challenge."

Salt water and waves aren't the only perils a solo robo-sailor faces at sea. Some other major challenges include other ships at sea, icebergs, small debris in the water and, of course, the weather. Most of these challenges—namely ice, ships, and the weather—will be solved by piping publicly available information into the ship's computer from shore via a satellite connection, Vik Hansen told me.

UBC Sailboat team members. Photo used by permission of Kristoffer Vik Hansen. 

As for avoiding small debris floating in the water, the team's solution is a little less elegant: they plan to ride right over it. The robot sailboat's bow and keel are angled so that it slips right over obstacles, and it's five and a half feet long, making it more speedy. "The less time you're in the north Atlantic, the less chance you have of hitting things in the north Atlantic," Vik Hansen said, "so you'd better go fast."

Looming over all of this hard work is the specter of failure, like those that came before. And the pressure is on, as the team's boat has been covered by several Canadian media outlets. The nation's eyes are on them. What will happen if the robot sailboat slips beneath the waves of the Atlantic?

"Even if the boat is gone—and you can imagine that it would be pretty unsafe for us to go and get it—we lose," said Vik Hansen. "But we haven't lost everything. We've developed so much knowledge on this challenge."

And if they win?

"If we win, we'll move on to something else."