Set Course For The Future: Robot Boats Are Sailing On the Horizon

History was made this September when a small robotic boat officially docked on the Irish coast. The real kicker? It crossed the Atlantic to get there.

Over two months ago, the Norwegian vessel, dubbed the SB Met, sailed as a member of the Microtransat Challenge, a boating competition that began in 2010. However, this boat worked within the “unmanned” class, allowing an operator of the vessel to change the vessels’ course from a remote location. Since the challenge’s conception, over 20 attempts by multiple teams from around the world have failed to cross the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland.

Invented by Norwegian company Offshore Sensing AS, the SB Met and other Sailbuoys were designed to operate autonomously.

While this might seem reminiscent of simple remote-controlled boats we use in the local pond, these vessels are a little different. They’re designed to withstand ocean storms, extreme galeforce winds, and damaging waves, along with other oceanic hazards. Current sailors face these life-threatening situations with a number of precautionary materials, including life preservers, food, and a potable water hose that can reach up to 50 feet in length. These boats will eliminate the threats associated with maritime travel.

It’s factors like these that have prevented unmanned, autonomous boats from traversing the course successfully in the past. In addition, passing boats and sailors often retrieve these boats from the water and subsequently stop their autonomous journey.

However, boats like these might have the potential to propel us into the future.

Countless people die each day in boating accidents due to poorly-manned boating crafts. Just this past Labor Day weekend, 14 people were thrown from their boats during a high-speed crash between two vessels. It resulted in two deaths and nine individuals being injured.

On top of that, boating property damage is on the rise as more individuals fail to utilize the proper safety precautions while operating speedboats. Back in 2016, boating property damage was an estimated $49 million. It’s important that only trained individuals operate boats under safe conditions.

Offshore Sensing CEO, David Peddie, recognizes the benefits of robotic vessels.

“These vehicles can do stuff which you cannot do with a traditional vehicle, especially in dangerous areas. The great advantage is that you can collect an awful lot of data for very low cost,” Peddie notes.

This makes robotic vessels great for data collection, oceanic research, and trading across seas.

On top of this innovation, another underwater robotic craft might just save our coral reefs.

The lionfish is an invasive species that has threatened the western Atlantic’s coral reef systems and native fish species. They can decimate local fish populations by up to 90% in a span of only five weeks, thanks to their expandable stomachs.

By using underwater robotic crafts that target and spear lionfish, students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute hope to aid the sailors that harvest the fish and protect the aquatic ecosystems at the same time.

Design World Online surmises the autonomous robotic process succinctly.

“Once it recognizes a lionfish, it would change course to intercept it and spear it. The buoyant spear tip would detach and float the fish to the surface to be collected,” the site reports.

Though this technology is still in the works, it could spell good news for fisherman, environmentalists, and local fish populations alike.

As the world shifts to more autonomous forms of technology, we continuously find new ways to keep citizens safe and aid the environment. Though both of these current projects are still in the works, this shows the changing tides that are on the horizon.

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