UBC student engineers building second autonomous sailboat

It’s just like tossing a message in a bottle into the ocean — except this takes months of preparation, there are regular radar updates and it requires a team of about 40 student engineers.

A group of passionate University of B.C. students is preparing for their second attempt at sending an autonomous sailboat across an ocean, following last year’s bittersweet attempt to send their “sailbot” Ada 1.0 across the Atlantic Ocean.

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“We basically pour our hearts out into this project year-round,” said Serena Ramley, a third-year integrated engineering student and UBC Sailbot co-captain.

The UBC Sailbot team had previously worked on vessels measuring about two-metres long and competed in various robotic sailing competitions, but after winning three consecutive titles, the team decided to scale up their project to focus on a larger vessel and a longer journey.

Ada 1.0 — named after famed computer programmer Ada Lovelace — was developed over three years: Students spent many of their weekends and hours of spare time calculating, building and programming, in hopes of sending a self-sailing vessel out on the Atlantic and have it reach the other side. The boat was powered by solar energy and propelled by wind, and was capable of navigating and avoiding obstacles in real-time on its own.

None of the students did it for extra credit or to be paid; they simply did it to see if they could, and to put what they had learned into practice.

On Aug. 24, 2016, after driving Ada 1.0 across Canada, a small team launched the 5 1/2-metre-long boat off the coast of Newfoundland. Ada 1.0 was destined for Ireland and they had hoped to fly a couple of team members over there to meet the boat upon arrival.

Tracking data shows the boat made good progress over the first 800 kilometres or so. The boat was able to reach speeds of up to 12 knots, which is about 24 km/h on land; boats of similar size generally travel about six knots.

But because the boat was travelling so fast, Ramley and the team suspect the boat turned sideways and a heavy wave must have caught it and damaged the boat’s rudder when it was lifted out of the water.

“At that point, she was at the mercy of the wind and the waves and it just kept going wherever they pulled her,” said Ramley, noting the boat still managed to right itself and travel about 7,785 km in total.

On a digital-tracking playback of Ada 1.0’s journey, a line on a map marking her journey takes a sudden dip toward the south — this is where Ramley believes the rudder was damaged — before straightening itself out and continuing east again, though with a few more twists and turns.

Eventually, the boat ceased communications and signals became intermittent after more than three months of sailing. The team hasn’t been actively tracking the boat since November and suspect the loss of the boat’s rudder may have caused its electrical systems to succumb to the rough seas.

Now the team is taking what they learned from Ada 1.0 and putting their efforts toward building Ada 2.0 in anticipation of the Vic-Maui Yacht Race in 2018. The race begins from Victoria, then heads toward Lahaina, Maui, covering a distance of about 2,308 nautical miles.

Construction for Ada 2.0 will begin this summer, once classes are out, and hopes are high that the sailbot will reach its destination this time.

“It’s an example of how much you can achieve when you put your heart into something,” said Ramley.

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