This was a particularly interesting question we were asked at the science fair: “Isn’t sailing old hat?” It’s easy to think about the Golden Age of Sail in the 1800s, or the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
So why is sailing still interesting in 2017? First off, there’s an environmental concern. Most cargo ships, cruise liners and ferries burn fossil fuels, releasing carbon dioxide and other kinds of pollution into the atmosphere, while an enormous source of clean energy literally whistles past them. If larger boats could harness wind power, they could reduce emissions and fuel costs together.
But there’s another angle that fits more closely with our work on small boats. A small autonomous sailing boat could travel far out into the ocean, carrying sensors to monitor water, air or wildlife. A similarly sized boat with an engine wouldn’t get far before it needed refuelling.
Our boat still uses batteries for the computer and the servos, however, which led to another interesting question: could we fit it with solar panels, so it could run indefinitely without needing someone to switch and recharge the batteries? Yu Cao’s PhD work is related to this. A study shows that renewable energy resources such as wind, wave and solar can power up small size maritime vehicles. It is possible to supply energy with renewable and ultimately archive fully autonomous operation on the sea. More details can be found on Yu’s research webpage.
The ultimate challenge for autonomous sailing boats is the Microtransat challenge, in which contestants attempt to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. So far, none of the boats valiantly setting out from either side have made it. We’d love to have a go in a few more years!