A Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) student team is one of 11 crews preparing to set sail at the 11th annual International Robotic Sailing Competition—known as SailBot 2017—at the Robert Crown Sailing Center in Annapolis, Md., June 11-16.
The competition challenges students to apply their robotics knowledge to develop autonomous boats two to four meters in length that could eventually lead to low-cost oceanographic research vessels used for pollution control and surveillance.
“This is an incredibly complex robotics challenge,” said Ken Stafford, director of the WPI Robotics Resource Center and a longtime sailor, who is overseeing WPI’s team. “You need to be both a sailor and a roboticist to do this.” Stafford enlisted the help of William Michalson, professor of electrical and computer engineering, who has navigation and communications experience.
Paul Miller, event chairman and associate professor of Naval Architecture for the United States Naval Academy, agreed, noting that the competition calls for participants to be versed in several areas: boat building, naval architecture, computer programming, electrical engineering, and engineering management.
“It’s hard enough to get anything to function under autonomous settings, and the ocean is a particular challenge,” said Miller. “You need to use nature’s forces to operate the sailboat. It’s not like an airplane or a car where you have a control throttle. The sailboat doesn’t always go where you want it to go.”