(AP) All summer, the small boat drifted steadily eastward across the churning North Atlantic until it neared the Irish coast, where it made history by becoming the first unmanned sailboat to cross the Atlantic.
The SB Met, built by Norwegian company Offshore Sensing AS, reached the finish line of the Microtransat Challenge for robotic boats on Aug 26, two and a half months after setting off from Newfoundland, according to preliminary data.
It’s a milestone that shows the technology for unmanned boats is robust enough to carry out extended missions that can dramatically cut costs for ocean research, border security, and surveillance in rough or remote waters. They’re part of wider efforts to develop autonomous marine vessels such as robotic ferries and cargo and container ships that could be operating by the end of the decade, outpacing attempts to commercialise self-driving cars.
“We’ve proved that it’s possible to do,” said David Peddie, CEO of Offshore Sensing, which created the oceangoing drones, known as Sailbuoys. “The North Atlantic is one of the toughest areas to cross” and completing the challenge “really proves that it’s a long endurance vehicle for pretty much any condition the sea can throw at you,” he said.
Under the Microtransat’s rules, boats up to 2.4 metres (2.6 yards) long can sail between Europe and the Caribbean or North America and Ireland. They must regularly transmit location data.
The Sailbuoy competed in the “unmanned” class, which allows operators to change its course along the way. There’s a separate “autonomous” class that prohibits any such communication.
While self-driving cars have to contend with pedestrians and other traffic, autonomous boats face storms that bring fierce gales and high waves as well as numerous seaborne hazards.
More than 20 previous attempts by various teams to complete the Microtransat since it began in 2010 have ended in failure, with robot boats caught in fishing nets, retrieved by ships, or lost, according to the race website. Peddie said his biggest fear was that a passing boat would pick up the two-metre, 60 kilogramme (130 pound) vessel as it neared the finish.
The company is in a niche field with few other players. US startup Saildrone is building a fleet of seven-metre “unmanned surface vehicles” that can spend up to 12 months gathering ocean data. Liquid Robotics, owned by Boeing, makes the Wave Glider, a research platform that uses wave rather than wind power for propulsion.
Bigger unmanned ships are coming, too, and the International Maritime Organization is reviewing the safety, security and environmental implications.
Offshore Sensing has built 14 Sailbuoys, which have a surfboard-shaped deck covered in solar panels that power the onboard technology and a rigid trapezoidal sail mounted near the bow that propels the vessel. In company videos, it looks like a toy tossed about by waves and passing ships, making its achievement all the more unlikely.
Peddie says robotic sailboats offer important advantages. Unlike drifting buoys, they can loiter in one place, and they’re nimbler and cheaper than research vessels.
“These vehicles can do stuff which you cannot do with a traditional vehicle, especially in dangerous areas,” such as a hurricane’s path, Peddie said.
Sailbuoys can be fitted with sensors to measure waves, ocean salinity and oxygen levels; echo sounders to look for fish eggs and larvae; or transmitters to communicate with undersea equipment. They sell for about 150,000 euros ($175,000), similar to the cost of renting a research vessel for a few days.