SailBot – An Open Path to the Top

By Lynn Fitzpatrick

(Annapolis, MD, USA – June 19, 2017)  Last week was a big one for young sailors on the path to the top of the sailing world.  While eleven high school, university, and academy teams from around the world descended upon the U.S. Naval Academy for the 11th SailBot International Sailing Regatta, twenty-six year old Peter Burling came one step closer to becoming the youngest skipper to win the America’s Cup by steering Emirates Team New Zealand to victory in the 35th America’s Cup Challenger Playoff Finals and victories in the first races of the 35th America’s Cup Finals.   Additionally, twelve, international youth teams, with 18 to 24-year old crews, including a fully-integrated team representing Bermuda, raced to qualify in the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup Finals in Bermuda.

Just as Olympic medalists and coaches have been sharing their sailing, boat handling, and training expertise with the young AC45 sailors, so too have the teachers, advisors, parents and event organizers on hand for the SailBot regatta. Paul Miller of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Naval Architecture and Engineering Department cheered on and assisted all SailBot participants with the enthusiasm of Land Rover BAR’s grinder turned Red Bull Youth America’s Cup presenter David “Freddie” Carr. Miller wants these students to succeed. “We learn a lot from one year to the next,” Miller said, while overseeing the station keeping and navigation round of this year’s U.S.N.A. 2-meter entry. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.”

Miller led the U.S.N.A. – Aberystwyth University joint development project of the 1.2-meter MaxiMOOP (Miniature Ocean Observation Platform), used by many of the teams in this year’s SailBot event, including the single-student team of Sander Miller, (no relation to Paul) from Maryland’s Broadneck High School. Building a MaxiMOOP or an original design is no small feat, and first year teams often arrive at the event with as much as another school year’s worth of work remaining before they can be competitive in all aspects of the event. Yet, there is a lot to be gained by participating.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute won this year’s competition.  They rebounded from their last place finish in Kingston last year by shifting from a standard 1-meter hobby sailboat hull to a 2-meter hull out of the mold that Paul Miller had gifted WPI last year. Nonetheless, WPI’s five-member team spent triple the amount of time than anticipated in developing a usable hull.

The most experienced sailors on the WPI team had no more than an introductory sailing PE course under their belts, so according to Ken Stafford, Director of WPI’s Robotics Resource Center, “they attacked the problems as roboticists/engineers… As robotic engineers they knew how to use computer vision and autonomy, hence the relative success in the obstacle avoidance, station-keeping, and endurance event.”

Just as Jimmy Spithill’s team will spend the five days between the first four America’s Cup races and the remaining races to examine everything to make its boat as fast and stable as Peter Burling’s Kiwi Flyer, the WPI team that struggled to sail well on all points of sail, “continued to develop the navigation and control software via their simulator while other on the team struggled to get the boat sailable.”  According to Stafford,  “Eventually, the team did not totally resolve the sailability issues until the last few days of this competition!”

No doubt, sailing will continue to be the source of tremendous breakthroughs, especially for all of the young people around the world who have the opportunity to experience its hands-on learning opportunities and camaraderie during international competitions. Our next generation of sailors has arrived at the top and is capable of making great gains for the sport.

WPI’s SailBot team prepares its hull and wing at the 2017 SailBot International Robotic Competition

For those who are skeptical of the trickle down of America’s Cup technology, three SailBot teams, including WPI, arrived with solid wing sails, which featured five contests: a remote-controlled fleet race; a station-keeping event in which boats stay in the same place for five minutes; a precision navigation race; challenge competitions covering payload/load bearing, collision avoidance, and search; a long-distance race; and team presentations.  Ultimately, WPI resorted to using its soft sail for the competition, because it could not resolve electronic issues with its wing.

Results of the 11th SailBot International Robotic Competition held at the U.S. Naval Academy June 11-16, 2017

Photos provided by Ken Stafford,  Teaching Professor, RBE/ME, Director, Robotics Resource Center, Worcester Polytechnic Institute