Robotic Sailing Competition Takes Worcester Polytechnic Institute From Last to First

A student team built an autonomous sailboat that narrowly beat the U.S. Naval Academy's unmanned sailboat.

by Bonnie Russell, Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. / July 5, 2017 0
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

(TNS) -- A Worcester Polytechnic Institute student team narrowly defeated the United States Naval Academy in the 11th annual Robotic Sailing Competition.

WPI was declared the winner of the contest, which featured unmanned sailboats navigating a variety of challenges on Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland. The SailBot competition challenges students to apply their robotics knowledge to develop autonomous boats up to two meters in length that could eventually lead to low-cost oceanographic research vessels used for pollution control and surveillance.

No small feat, as this was only the second year WPI entered the competition and the first time this trophy has been won by a U.S. university other than the Naval Academy, according to Ken Stafford, director of the WPI Robotics Resource Center.

"In our first entry into SailBot last year we came in dead last. I knew we had a very strong team this year, but it was also much smaller than every other team and we had built a brand-new boat (most of the other teams had boats multiyears in the making and had memberships of 10-40 students). So it was a pleasant surprise when I realized from the first day of the event how well we would do," said Stafford, a longtime sailor, who oversaw the WPI team of five students.

The five-day competition featured 11 teams participating in five precision and endurance contests. WPI scored 41.9 points, slightly more than the Naval Academy's 41.4 points. The third-place finisher was Aberystwyth University in Wales, which earned 35.1 points.

In addition to securing first-place overall honors, the WPI team took first place in the station keeping and collision avoidance categories, and first place in its oral presentation.

So what is station keeping?

"This was an autonomous challenge where the boat had to sail into a 40m by 40m zone, stay within these confines for five minutes, and then sail out as quickly as possible. It was to simulate a mission where the boat would be told to sail to a particular set of coordinates, then wait there until directed otherwise," Stafford said.

The team came in second in the long-distance race, which Stafford said was the most challenging. "To have the boat sail continuously around the bay without operator input is really tough," he said.

College Town asked if no operator input means that the team just watched without being able to intervene in any way.

"Absolutely! To get maximum points, you simply watch! You could take over with radio remote control to avoid a collision with another boat without penalty, but another use of remote control stops the autonomous scoring clock and degrades the current race lap to 50 percent credit. You were able to call for a 'pit stop' without penalty (but with a paused clock) to replace batteries or make small adjustments," Stafford said.

WPI finished third in fleet racing.

The team on hand at the event, which Stafford described as "a dream team of commitment, creativity and smarts," included 2017 graduate Nick Gigliotti of Hudson and rising seniors Jordan Burklund of West Des Moines, Iowa; Hans Johnson of St. Peter, Minnesota; James Kuszmaul of Mountain View, California; and Tucker Martin of Dracut.

William Michalson, WPI professor of electrical and computer engineering, an expert in navigation and communications served as co-advisor.

In addition to the WPI team at the event, several other WPI students helped construct the boat last year. They are 2017 graduates Kelsey Regan of Winchendon; Dean Schifilliti of Ossining, New York; Daniel Singer of Eldersburg, Maryland; and Ryan Wall of Groton.

QCC, CCCC team up for new program

Quinsigamond Community College became the first campus in Massachusetts to build an articulation bridge in mechanical technology that links to the aeronautics specialization at Cape Cod Community College. The colleges recently signed an articulation agreement providing opportunity for Worcester-area residents to earn credentials as airplane mechanics.

CCCC is working with the private sector to create residential spaces for students from Quinsigamond to be housed. Worcester-area students will complete one year of programming at QCC before transferring credits and relocating to the CCCC program.

For more information, email admissions@qcc.mass.edu.

___

©2017 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass., distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.