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Naval Architecture & Ocean Engineering
Research sailboat launching photo
Research sailboat repair photo

Paul Miller's Autonomous Surface Vessels

Every day it seems that a new robot is available to solve some problem that is typically dull, dirty or dangerous for humans.  Although their popularity has only recently taken off, flying robots, or “drones,” have been around since about WW1 and robotic land vehicles almost that long.  Underwater robots are used frequently by oceanographers and the military, but people are often surprised to find that the first to develop a robotic boat was none other than Nicholas Tesla in 1898!  He even organized a competition for robotic boats at Madison Square Garden.

Today’s autonomous vessels are a bit more sophisticated than Tesla’s and use computers and navigation systems he could only dream about.  Their popularity has lagged quite a bit behind other autonomous vehicles largely due to practical engineering issues such as collision avoidance, navigation in close quarters and concerns about large, unmanned ships that could cause a lot of harm if something failed.

Recent breakthroughs in battery and solar power generation have opened up the field of Micro Autonomous Surface Vessels, and USNA has a number of ongoing projects involving students and faculty.  The longest running program is the SailBot Team, founded in 2007 by Midn Jake Gerlach.  The team’s goal is to annually design, build and operate at least one boat in at least one international competition.  By 2016, the teams had built 11 vessels and won five competitions.

Our most-attended competition is the SailBot Regatta, held in early summer in North America.  College and high school teams design and build their boats to accomplish tasks that test speed, maneuverability, navigation and endurance.  Every few years, we also attend the World Robotic Sailing Championships, typically held in Europe.  At that competition, the events are similar to those at SailBot, but also include tests for collision avoidance, oceanographic data collection and searching skills.

Both of those events helped the team develop their ability to compete in a much tougher event, the MicroTransAtlantic Challenge.  The goal of this competition is to sail a small autonomous sailboat across the Atlantic.  The USNA SailBot Team has entered four times, with one boat, named ABoat Time, getting picked up by fishing trawlers three times!

The team's other focus is on small electric- or hybrid-powered autonomous vessels for oceanographic research.  In conjunction with Aberystwyth University in Wales, we built a boat for studying glaciers in Greenland, a hybrid sail/electric boat for studying fish in the Irish Sea and a trimaran for the Smithsonian to study dissolved gasses in the Chesapeake Bay.​​​​  The pair of courses, Autonomous Vessel Design (EN447) and Autonomous Vessel Fabrication and Evaluation (EN448), typically enrolls 5-10 dedicated Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering students.

Below, see images of the process: Initial design and fabrication, testing and evaluation in calm water, repairs and modifications, sea trials, and finally taking on the waves in competition!

sailbot in shop
Under Construction: Trawler Bait (#11), a MaxiMOOP and Mid-lenium Falcon (#10)
Rickover Hall, US Naval Academy, Jan 2016
sailbot in water
Underway on Trials: ARRTOO, a hybrid electric/sail-powered research vessel
Aberystwyth, Wales, Apr 2013
sailbot in repair
Preparing and adjusting boat: Midn Dax Ansley and Will Johnson (Class of 2016) with Mid-lenium Falcon
Sailboat Regatta, Kingston, Ontario, Jun 2016
sailbot SeaQuester in water
Sea Trials: World Robotic Sailing Champion, SeaQuester (#9)
Severn River, Annapolis, MD, Aug 2014
sailbot ABoatTime in wave
Competition: ABoat Time (#7) launching
Two weeks later, she was accidentally caught by a scallop dragger 240 miles out at sea.
MicroTransAtlantic Challenge, Cape Cod, MA, May 2014
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