Dutch yacht design event weighs robotic sailing
AMSTERDAM _ Pilotless planes are no longer pie-in-the-sky stuff. Can robotic sailboats be far off? The idea of using sail-driven drone boats broke the surface at the 22nd HISWA International Symposium on Yacht Design and Yacht Construction in November, 2012. The biannual event takes stock of design innovations in yachting. Its latest edition touched on crewless sailing, on-board computerization, the future of carbon fiber rigs and lifeboat design and how to build a wooden hull for a 141-m yacht.
Serious robotic sailing research is happening, of all places, in land-locked Austria. Roland Stelzer and Karim Jafarmadar at the Austrian Society for Innovative Computer Sciences (INNOC) say “robotic sailboats represent a rapidly emerging technology for various tasks on lakes and oceans.” Their July, 2012, Baltic Sea ‘Roboat’ mission _ supported by the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research _ used a keel-mounted microphone to record whale signals. “Valuable information was collected on the presence of these animals,” their report to the HISWA yachting design symposium stated.
It says tsunamis, oil spills, refugees dying at sea and piracy beg for ocean monitoring by CO2-neutral robotic sailboats. And, futurely, unmanned cargo transport and ferries, fishery surveillance and minefield mapping. The most eye-catching research to date has been the Wave Glider (left) of LiquidRobotics Inc., an ocean data services provider. It uses surface wave energy for propulsion. The iRobot Seaglider is what the US military calls a deep-diving Unmanned Underwater Vehicle. The INNOC ‘roboat’ is less complex as sailboats need little power to run sensors, computers and adjust sail and rudder position. Two versions were developed: a 1.38 m craft, off a toy shop shelf. Cheap and light, it was shredded by anything resembling a wave or wind. No. 2 was a heftier, self-righting 3.72-m Laerling day-sailer. In the Baltic Sea it covered 71 nm.
There’s still much to do. A drone sailboat can avoid land, but not other boats or debris. That requires more tinkering with thermal imaging, radar, camera, and AIS technology. INNOC wants its craft also to generate more solar power for mission sensors. It sees a future of “swarms” of mass-produced, silent, non-polluting and cheap robot sailboats “measuring meteorological data, detect water pollution, rescue refugees and many more” undertakings. One serious obstacle: what’s the legal status of crewless sailboat? The International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea are silent on autonomous surface vehicles.