Autonomous Sailboat Project

Why Autonomous Sailboats?

In recent years a worldwide interest in the development of Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs) has developed.  Long-term goals in this research area have been adopted by the academic community, with the most widely adopted goal being an autonomous transatlantic crossing, which was proposed by Mark Neal and Yves Briere with the creation of the Microtransat Competition [1].  Several autonomous sailing competitions (both fresh water and long-distance ocean races) have been created to help the community achieve these goals including the World Robotic Sailing Championship [2], Microtransat [1] and Sailbot [3] competitions.

When evaluating the technical challenge and appeal of this type of vehicle the first thing that is noticed is that the operating environment of these types of vehicles are more complicated and challenging in comparison to many ground-based vehicles.  Current and wind disturbances make dynamic control more of a challenge than when actuators are in direct contact with a stationary surface.  Also, the surface of the water (wave height, profile, speed and frequency) can play a significant role in the net motion of the vehicle and is not a characteristic of the environment that is easily measured or easily adopted into the control scheme of the vehicle.

Above and beyond these technical reasons for researching autonomous sailing vessels the most compelling reasons may have little to do with the technical details behind the craft design and control.  The fact remains that almost 70% of the surface of the Earth is comprised of oceans (and is typically less well studied then the portion of the Earth’s surface that is above water).  The exploration and transit of this portion of the world is important to many different industries yielding many potential applications for autonomous sailing vessels including industrial shipping and asset protection, underwater exploration, surveying and mapping, marine life monitoring, and military reconnaissance and surveillance.

With all of these potential applications available for a project in this application area and with the recent global interest on environmentally sustainable technology it should be mentioned that this type of vehicle can be designed to operate while creating very little (and as low as zero) emissions.

Current State

The hull has been completed and has been on open water trials several times.  Portions of the system have been run on water with initial control systems and has performed admirably on tasks such as maintaining a given heading.

What’s Next?

The next logical step for this project is the design and implementation of an intelligent control system capable of making local sailing decisions, based on desired heading and apparent wind conditions at the mast of the boat, as well as solving global routing problems, concerning path planning of sophisticated long-range journeys and weather routing.  Currently very few groups have tackled more than the local sailing decisions with no truly ideal solution existing for the global aspect of the problem.


[1] “The microtransat challenge.”

[2] “World robotic sailing championship.”

[3] “Sailbot competition.”

Copyright 2011 Andrew Speers