Solar-Powered Boat Makes Unmanned Transatlantic Journey

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The best way I can think of to introduce this story is to read from what’s printed on the back of the boat in three languages. It says: "Hello I’m Scout, a fully autonomous boat attempting to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Tiverton, Rhode Island, to Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain. I was built over the course of three years by a group of young optimists in a after a successful kick starter campaign. If you have found me, please contact our ragtag group of aspiring engineers.”

Scout team members prepare the robotic boat for its voyage. (Dave Schneider/IEEE Spectrum)
Scout team members prepare the robotic boat for its voyage. (Dave Schneider/IEEE Spectrum)

Two of the engineers are Dylan Rodriguez, a 21-year-old senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and Max Kramers, a 26-year-old recent graduate from the University of Rhode Island.

"I have been building boats, have been sailing boats since I could pretty much walk," says Kramers.

I met Max and Dylan in their garage workspace where they were doing a final prep on their robotic boat. Over the two-and-a-half years they've been at this project, they collected quite a few assistants and supporters who arrived in increasing numbers as the evening wore on. It was quite the party, only instead of dispensing wine or beer, they were passing around cups of epoxy resin and marine paint.

Rodriguez: "It started off as a joke, and here we are a couple thousand dollars later."

Kramers: "Dylan and I were up late one night and throwing around ideas what we could do," says Kramers.

Rodriguez: "At the beginning it was just max and I, and I did the electronics and the software, and max did the construction of the boat."

Kramers: "We went with a carbon-fiber, foam-cored construction for the hull, which yields an incredibly light, and incredibly strong structure."

Rodriguez: "And so when we needed more man hours to be logged every night, we’d bring in friends to either help with electronics or help with the physical construction of the boat."

Another Scout team member, Dan Flanigan, a recent civil engineer graduate from Bucknell University describes the construction of the boat.

"So you’re looking at a 13-1/2 foot-long boat. It’s a foot and a half high, it looks a bit like and aircraft carrier, and covered with solar panels on the top," Flanigan says


Rodriguez interjects: "And those solar panels charge a battery, and the battery runs a trolling motor. So scout, ideally, is able to run 24 hours a day, charging the batteries during the day, discharging the batteries at night," he says. "We did do a lot of in-the-water testing, most notably at the fried seafood place down the street."

The midnight launch of Scout. (Dave Schneider/IEEE Spectrum)
The midnight launch of Scout. (Dave Schneider/IEEE Spectrum)

Arriving at the beach at midnight, Dylan has to explain to a police officer that his crew is there, not to drink beer, but to launch a robotic boat across the Atlantic. What helps is the presence of many adult supporters, including Tim Flanigan, Dan's father.

"Our primary job is to feed them dinner and keep them stoked up with carbs," says the elder Flanigan

The adults also proved useful when it came time to haul the 13-foot-long boat a half-mile or so to the launch point.

The unusual goings-on drew the attention of some late-night partiers. One curious onlooker was told he was witnessing a robot boat being sent off to Spain. He looked baffled.

The attempt made by this group is one to be world record breaking.

"The record is for autonomous surface vessel. The furthest that anyone has gone was an autonomous sailboat that went 61 miles," says Kramers.

Scout has since beaten that record, having now navigated itself more than 800 miles east of Rhode Island.

If the little boat completes the rest of its planned 3700-mile journey, it will land on the shores of Sanluccar del Barrameda, Spain, a spot with a bit of history. This is the spot it's where Christopher Columbus left from on his third voyage to the new world.
David Schneider is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum magazine.

This segment aired on September 25, 2013.


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