Students to Design Self-Sailing Boat

There’s a new engineering design team on the block at Virginia Tech. Joining the similar programs that are already in place is SailBot, a North American fully autonomous sailboat competition a multidisciplinary group of Virginia Tech students are looking to enter.

“We need lots of different types of engineers to get involved, so it will play up the strengths of different people and we can see how it all fits together,” said senior ocean engineering and SailBot president, Allison Oswalt. “Everyone is going to have their own niche.”

Even though the competition spans North America, the number of participants is small. Eight to nine schools compete each year, which means Tech’s program is guaranteed a spot in this coming year’s June contest.

Each team will put their sailboat through various events throughout the five-day tournament. These include seakeeping tests such as stability and control of the craft, a navigational course with buoys, a presentation of the design process and a straight-line distance race. Scores are given in each category, and the total score wins the competition.

“It’s nice because you can score high in one section and a little bit lower in another but still come out really well,” said Oswalt.

Even though only a few colleges are involved, Tech will be battling veteran schools that have participated in this event since it’s beginning in 2008.

“The University of British Columbia and the (U.S.) Naval Academy are two big timers,” said senior ocean engineering major and Sailbot team member, Tom Shea. “They are the ones who usually finish first and second, so those are the ones we’re going after.”

Placing in the top two is a personal goal for team, which is still trying to figure out everything from funds to designing a boat for the first time. Approximately $10,000 is needed for the project, and fundraising has just begun.

The majority of the money will be allotted for materials, but some will go to transportation for the team and the boat. Previous competition sites have been in Annapolis, Md. but others were located in Massachusetts and British Columbia.

SailBot has reached out to some larger companies for donations, but now is turning more of its attention to local businesses that are more likely to support a Tech organization.

According to senior ocean engineering major and team member Wes Downs, the ideal material — but more expensive one — is carbon fiber. What the boat is made out of though will depend on the amount of money raised.

“You can build it out of wood if you wanted to, but it’s going to be heavier than the carbon fiber ones,” he said. “It’s really going to depend on what material we choose to use and how much money we get to spend on it.”

The team will begin creating a design for the hull soon. Once the shape is established, it will be sent off to the coding and electronics group to program the boat to travel without human-aid.

“Since it’s all autonomous, it has to receive signals from the wind and the resistance on the hull and have sensors everywhere,” said senior ocean engineering major and team member Mitchell Long. “Then from those sensors, you have to run it through computer simulations to tell it how it needs to move and how it’s going to change directions.”

Ocean engineering students in particular are finding this program beneficial to their academic and post-graduation success, since the hands-on experience isn’t usually offered in the classroom.

“Students are going to spend four to five years in a classroom learning this one way, and then they are going to spend the next 40 to 50 years learning another way,” Downs said. “It’s nice to have a different view of how they are going to be learning in that 40 to 50 years.”

Participating in SailBot is important to the team, but the ultimate priority is raising awareness and publicity for the small ocean engineering program.

But, as Oswalt said, “Winning has its benefits too.”

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