Developers send solar-powered boat on attempted transatlantic trek

‘Scout,’ the local, completely computer-operated machine, is headed for Spain at record-breaking speed

Contributing Writer
Thursday, September 19, 2013

The autonomous vessel Scout is currently in transit across the Atlantic Ocean, leaving its seven creators from Tiverton, R.I. waiting to see if the boat will break world records.

Scout, a 12-foot-long boat lined with solar panels to power its voyage, is currently 798 miles off the coast of Rhode Island — 2,615 miles away from Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain — with the goal of becoming the first autonomous surface vehicle to complete a trans-Atlantic crossing.

That Scout is autonomous means “we literally have no control” over the vessel’s voyage, Flanigan said. The crew receives email updates every 20 minutes but cannot change the vessel’s course, which is determined by a computer program on the ship. Team members Dylan Rodriguez, Ryan Muller and David Pimental built the program that keeps Scout on track. Solar panels power Scout’s motor, storing energy in a 40-Ampere battery so the boat can run at night as well.

What would soon become a world record attempt began in 2010 when Max Kramers, leaving to study in Spain for a year, joked to Rodriguez and five other childhood sailing friends that sending a boat back and forth with a message would be easier than using a bottle.  The group of engineering and computer science students decided to give it a shot, working until 3 or 4 a.m. most nights over the summer after getting off of work to prepare their ship for launch.

Dan Flanigan, one of the mission’s engineers, said the success of Scout could “have a big effect on the environmental industry.” Scout is laden with sensors picking up data, and Flanigan envisions “10 of these boats motoring around an oil spill taking samples” as a cheap alternative to current manned expeditions.

Flanigan estimated the mission cost between “$6,000 and $7,000, all through donations.” The crew does not currently have an expected date of arrival for Scout, as the progress of the boat varies due to weather, sunlight exposure, sea debris, shipping traffic and the ship’s potential to flip. “Once she’s out there, she’s out there, so you roll the dice,” Flanigan said.

The crew programmed Scout’s course by giving it GPS points across the Atlantic, providing it with a route to Spain. Spectators can view Scout’s progress on a live tracking application on the team’s website.  As a result of a programming glitch that has the ship skipping checkpoints — leaving the next one 1,000 miles away — the tracker often appears to show the vessel veering off course, said Flanigan. “However, it hasn’t swung more than 20 or 40 miles off its run line, so we’re incredibly happy.”

Scout is the team’s fourth vessel created to traverse the Atlantic. The group holds the motto “failure is the mother of all success,” which can be found on a fortune cookie stored inside Scout’s hull. The launch date was delayed twice this summer — due first to fog and then to a motor failure — before it successfully embarked Aug. 24.

“The biggest challenge of a project like this is just failure over and over and over again,” said Flanigan. “(Until you are successful) it’s hard to know if it’s ever going to work.”

Other groups have previously attempted this feat, but Scout has already beaten the Pinta’s 61 mile record for a truly autonomous surface vessel. The Pinta’s 2010 launch was the work of students of computer programming at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

If the endeavor is successful, the team promises to fly out to “Spain, Portugal or really anywhere across the Atlantic” to celebrate, Flanigan said, before shipping Scout home.

Scout has inspired “conversations about starting a business or working in this industry” among the group members, but the fact that some are still in school has placed future plans on hold, Flanigan said.

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