Sailbot winners

Worcester Polytechnic Institute Robotics Team Guides Unmanned Sailboat to Victory in SailBot ’17

June 20, 2017

A Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) student team has won the 11th annual International Robotic Sailing Competition in a hard-fought contest that featured unmanned sailboats navigating a variety of challenges on Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Md.

The SailBot competition challenges students to apply their robotics knowledge to develop autonomous boats up to two meters in length that could eventually lead to low-cost oceanographic research vessels used for pollution control and surveillance.

The competition featured 11 teams participating in five precision and endurance contests. WPI scored 41.9 points, narrowly beating the United States Naval Academy (41.4 points) at the five-day event held last week at the

WPI Sailbot
WPI’s sailboat (center) crosses the finish line on another

autonomously completed lap during the six-hour

endurance test.

Robert Crown Sailing Center in Annapolis. The third-place finisher was Aberystwyth University, Wales, which earned 35.1 points.

“This was such a gratifying win, knowing that these students have been preparing for this event for close to a year,” said Ken Stafford, director of the WPI Robotics Resource Center and a longtime sailor, who oversaw the WPI team. “The WPI student team showed a lot of skill and excellence in planning and executing on a set of complex autonomous robotic challenges.”

In addition to securing first place overall honors, the WPI team took first place in the station keeping and collision avoidance categories, and first place in its oral presentation. The team came in second in the long distance race and third in fleet racing.

Stafford said the long distance race was the most challenging. “To have the boat sail continuously around the bay without operator input is really tough,” he said. “The team had to deal with battery life issues, water intrusion, and sensor degradation.”

Paul Miller, event chairman and associate professor of Naval Architecture for the United States Naval Academy, said this year’s race was memorable, notably for the challenge competitions, which covered payload/load bearing, collision avoidance, and search.

WPI team works on the sailboat
The WPI team evaluates a winch sensor issue on the


“The challenge events were incredibly competitive this year and the level of overall competition was as high as I’ve ever seen it,” said Miller. “The lead changed three times and wasn’t decided until the last day.”

Miller said the WPI team was the model of efficiency as it fielded just five students when most other teams had close to 10 each. “The key thing for the WPI team was their motivation and effort,” said Miller.

Stafford agreed, adding that the team tweaked implementation details every night after competitions. “The WPI skillset of actually making stuff work—whether it was vision-processing or boat aero- and hydrodynamics—kept us in the game and competitive.”  

The five-member WPI student team on hand at the event was composed 2017 graduate Nick Gigliotti of Hudson, Mass., and rising seniors Jordan Burklund of West Des Moines, Iowa; Hans Johnson of Saint Peter, Minn., James Kuszmaul of Mountain View, Calif., and Tucker Martin of Dracut, Mass.

The team was co-advised by William Michalson, WPI professor of electrical and computer engineering, an expert in navigation and communications.

In addition to the WPI team at the event, several other WPI students helped construct the boat last year. They are 2017 graduates Kelsey Regan of Winchendon, Mass., Dean Schifilliti of Ossining, N.Y., Daniel Singer of Eldersburg, Md., and Ryan Wall of Groton, Mass.

To view the results, visit this link.