REACH and SailBot Share Passion for Sailing as Education Platform

US Sailing’s REACH program has made a unique connection with the SailBot International Robotic Sailing Regatta. These two innovative programs have a lot in common.

SailBot is a robotic sailing competition historically held in North America in which teams of students from colleges and high schools compete. The goal of the event is to create an unmanned sailboat that navigates through a variety of challenges with limited, if any, human control. Students are able to use this friendly competition between schools to apply their engineering knowledge in a multi-disciplinary task that requires mechanical, electrical, and software skill to deal with this highly variable environment.

The REACH program utilizes sailing as an educational platform, challenging youth to embrace education, establish a love of learning and explore productive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) based careers.

US Sailing had the opportunity to discuss the educational benefits of the SailBot competition with event organizer Andrew Bennett:

US Sailing: What concepts are students learning by engaging in a project like this?
Andrew Bennett: There are several important concepts that students will learn during this project, including mechanical design, electronics, naval architecture, robotics, programming and systems integration. It will also put their sailing skills to the test as they will have to translate their own sailing abilities into something that can be programmed into the robot so it can try to sail as well as they do!

The contest is designed to let teams focus on any or all of these aspects of the problem. A “kit” will be made available, complete with a shopping list of parts and downloadable software, which will let students get a running start on the project. From there, students can focus on any aspect of the problem that interests them the most.

US Sailing: How does this competition prepare students for 21st century careers?
Andrew Bennett: Robots are rapidly becoming the widespread throughout the world:  in agriculture, medicine, logistics, mining, entertainment, safety and anyplace where the task is “dirty, dull or dangerous.” The RoboSail project will teach design, programming and fabrication skills which will give students an edge in this growing industry.

Outside of robotics, the design, fabrication, programming and problem solving skills that students develop will be useful in many fields such as engineering, software design and naval architecture, to name just a few.

US Sailing: What are a few of the challenges for students at the high school level compared to those at the college level?
Andrew Bennett: As a starting point, I would suggest that high school students focus on the areas of integration (making everything work together) and reliability (especially making a robot that will survive in a salt water environment). These skills will be extremely useful later in college. With that done, the teams can then focus on making a smart, fast boat. As many college teams have learned, sailing is a sport that is “easy to learn and hard to master.”

As I like to tell my students:  1) Make it work. 2) Make it work reliably. 3) Make it better.

The college level teams traditionally spend time perfecting hull and keel design. Some teams will go as far as multihull and wing-sail designs as well. Others will spend all their time on software and autonomy and try to make a “smarter boat.”

US Sailing: What role does sailing play in a complex engineering competition like this?

Andrew Bennett: Sailing skills are vital to the success of a winning team. As several colleges have learned in the past, making a boat that is capable of sailing is not the same thing as making a boat sail well! Even the best boat can be defeated when it’s not used to its full potential.

Areas where sailing skills play an important role are in rigging, trimming, handling and tactics. Even simple acts, such as tacking and jibing, need to be programmed into the robot and then verified so that they do the right thing at the right time.

US Sailing: Do most of the students have a background in sailing? If not, what concepts do you focus on?
Andrew Bennett: In the current SailBot competition the teams vary widely from all roboticists and programmers to all naval architects. In 2012, the first place boat was designed by a team of sailors and naval architects, but it was not the most reliable boat in the race and suffered breakdowns during the race. The second place boat was designed by roboticists and was very reliable, but it did not sail well and did not move nearly as fast as it might have if it had more experienced sailors on the team.

The ideal team should have a mix of everything: sailing skills, programming skills, electrical skills and mechanical skills. That being said, past races at the college level show that teams that emphasize one skill over the other are still quite competitive.

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