Robots Take to the Seas

By Andre Sousa

(Source: MAST)

No matter what method of transportation you take, travelling in the summer can be particularly stressful. Traffic slows you down, gas prices break the bank and figuring out your GPS is hardly ever worth it. However, a Queen’s design team is dreaming of a way to eliminate these summer travel worries – all in the luxury of a sailboat.

The Queen’s Mostly Autonomous Sailboat Team (QMAST) designs, constructs and races sailboats capable of navigating without human interaction. Cue your dream come true of lounging on a boat to cross Lake Ontario without worrying about navigation or even looking at a map.

QMAST is a student-run engineering design team based in Beamish-Munro Hall. The team is made up of undergraduate students from all departments within Queen’s Engineering, as well as other faculties. Since they were formed in December 2004 they have built over five sailboats that can automatically navigate themselves.

According to QMAST Captain Cory Green the team’s designs provide undergraduate students with a unique engineering learning experience by providing them with tangible goals to achieve. Currently, the team is working towards competing in the daunting 2013 MicroTransat Challenge, which involves sending a sailboat to autonomously sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

Although there have been numerous attempts from teams across the globe to complete the transatlantic MicroTransat race, it has never been finished. Last year only one team was able to launch from the start line and the boat sailed for eight days until a sail was damaged and it stopped making progress.

Green, Sci ’12, said he is confident that QMAST will be able to accomplish this feat in the upcoming year.

The team is currently testing their newest yacht designed specifically for this transatlantic challenge. “I believe that our MicroTransat attempt is pretty amazing and unique,” Green said. “Our yacht is the first to be designed and built specifically for the MicroTransat challenge.”  He said previous teams have modified production boats for their attempts, and that by building their yacht from the ground up they are ensuring reliability and simplicity.

The unnamed yacht uses GPS to determine its location and heading and an ultrasonic wind sensor is used to judge the speed and direction of the wind. The onboard Arduino microcontroller acts as the brain of the system and controls a steering system and sail winch based on sailing code written by the team. Green said writing the code was difficult because sailing involves many changing factors – such as water and wind conditions – that need to be considered to complete maneuvers as needed.

The boat doesn’t have a generator and it collects energy with a wind turbine and solar panels. The power is stored in 12 Volt deep-cycle marine batteries in order to power the on-board electronics and motors.

To keep track of the yacht during the crossing the team has outfitted the boat with cellular and satellite modems, so that the boat can send updates back to the team in Kingston. In fact, the boat can even tweet and post Facebook updates independently – who wouldn’t want to be friends with a self-sailing boat?

“The team has worked very hard and we’re confident we can go the distance,” Green said. “The project has received a lot of interest from the student body at Queen’s and if we’re successful in crossing the Atlantic Ocean, that will be something that Queen’s can be really excited about.”

Green encouraged students from all faculties to come out to QMAST events and consider joining the team.

Overall, QMAST’s goals may currently seem like fun and games, but the future applications of autonomous sailboats are quite impressive. Imagine the day when you can simply hop on the 4:00 sailboat back to Toronto.

 

 

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