Hemisphere Supporting Innovation: The Adventures of the UBC Robotic Sailboat Team

Since 2013, Hemisphere GNSS has been sponsoring and donating GNSS-based components and equipment to the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Robotic Sailboat Team. Aptly named ‘Sailbot’, the group’s vision and purpose is to challenge themselves by designing, creating, testing, and showcasing fully functional autonomous sailboats. Since the beginning, over 60 individuals have joined the group to help and support the yearly projects to see their visions come to life. Primarily students, the individuals do not do this for class credit or financial gain, but to share their passions for complex programming, advanced electronics, and sailing.

Thunderbird 2013 – 2014

Stemming from the desire to include a vessel in the International Robotic Sailing Regatta (IRSR), the UBC Sailbot’s 2013 (and 2014) autonomous sailboat was called ‘Thunderbird’ and measured 2 m in length. The competition was a specified set of challenges that included an upwind-downwind course, point-to-point course, station keeping, and more. To assist the UBC Sailbot group, Hemisphere donated a Vector™ V102 GPS compass that provided centimeter-level position accuracy. When paired with the software that the group created, Thunderbird achieved a perfect score (50/50 points) at the IRSR in both 2013 and 2014.

However, the V102 enclosure was too large for the 2 m vessel to be used as a whole so the team had to disassemble the unit and mount it more appropriately in the space-constrained application. Having accomplished this with only minor problems, the V102 served the team very well. In the end, they could capture positions of various course marks prior to the race and trust that the position data was accurate and precise enough to perform close mark roundings repeatedly without any additional localization methods.

Ada 2015 – 2016

After achieving perfect scores in the IRSR 2013 and 2014, it was obvious that the UBC Sailbot group could now focus their attention on larger goals. After some deliberation, they found the perfect project­ – create an autonomous sailboat capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean unassisted from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada to Ireland. This goal, dubbed the ‘UBC Transatlantic Challenge’, would get them to push the boundaries of autonomous marine navigation and sailing logic.

Having been coined the ‘Mount Everest of the sailing world’ by the team, this new goal would force the team to take a more serious approach to system reliability while adding obstacle detection and long-term path planning. The UBC Sailbot group approached the design and creation of the vessel, named ‘Ada’, much more differently than Thunderbird. They had to rethink what they had previously done in terms of the physical, electrical, and software design. This new design would be a 5.5 m keelboat that would need to withstand the harshest of marine environments. The project was broken down into seven sub-teams, which included: hull, hull interior, deck, keel, rudder, rig, and collision mitigation. The entire process was completed by undergraduate students from the UBC with external help from industry experts. To say that this was an ambitious project would be an understatement.

Again, Hemisphere supported the team and donated a Crescent® Vector H200 board, two A25 antennas, and a Vector V104  GPS compass. The original plan was to have the H200 with the two A25 antennas as the primary solution and the V104 mounted on the deck as a fail-safe. Due to a slight oversight during the primary solution’s integration onto the final vessel, and the launch being too close to perform any further modifications, the V104 had to act as the sole provider for GNSS positioning. The position data that was provided by the V104 was reliable and precise despite being near a sail and within proximity to the sailboat’s LTE and Iridium transceivers. During Ada’s transatlantic voyage attempt, the V104 allowed Ada to avoid other vessels in real time with AIS (Automatic Identification System) positions and by sending back its position for tracking and global route charting and planning.

The dream to cross the Atlantic Ocean was an ambitious one and was in many ways more of a learning experience rather than a successful one. The journey began as planned, but after encountering a serious storm, the GNSS-driven position data was lost due to a portion of the ship’s control system being damaged by the charge controllers not cutting power off properly when the on-board batteries reached below their minimum charge levels.

The planned voyage was to last approximately three weeks in duration and 3,000 km in length. Impressively, due to it traveling much faster than the team had anticipated (at times exceeding speeds over ground of 12.41 knots), Ada made one third of her journey in only four days. It is speculated that this immense speed was her eventual demise, leading to rudder failure. In the end, Ada had endured two gale force storms, withstood winds of 50+ knots, survived at least three months in the open Atlantic Ocean with most of her electrical systems intact, and traveled at least 7,500 km. Having lost contact with Ada, the team has been reticent to announce that she is likely lost at sea. As far as the team could tell, the closest she got to the European coast was 800 km off the coast of Spain and Portugal.

Regardless of the outcome of the UBC Transatlantic Challenge, the UBC Sailbot team has only grown and learned from its experience designing, creating, testing, and launching Ada. They are already working on another vessel that will participate in the 2018 edition of the Vic-Maui Regatta. The competition will see teams travel from Victoria, BC, Canada to the island of Maui, HI, USA, and back again, for a total combined distance of approximately 8,500 km.

We are pleased to sponsor and proud to support such inspiring innovation and look forward to our continued assistance to the UBC Robotic Sailboat Team.