Scout the Autonomous Transatlantic Robotic Boat

Air Date September 11, 2012

This week, we interviewed Daniel Flanigan, an engineering student at Bucknell University. Why? Because he and several friends have built and plan to launch Scout — a twelve foot long autonomous robotic boat designed to cross the Atlantic Ocean, relying only on pre-programmed commands and information that it can collect about its environment through sensors.

According to the project website, Scout “is built to deal with anything the ocean can throw at it” — and its status will be reported live online. Scout is a fascinating project, funded through a Kickstarter set up by Dylan Rodriguez. Our guest Daniel says it started as a casual conversation that soon turned into reality.

The principals of the project are students, with an average age of 21, and they worked all summer in their spare time to make Scout a reality. The home base for the project is Tiverton, Rhode Island, and each of the partners has grown up around boats, especially sailboat racing. They’d also had some experience in building canoes and small boats.

One member, Max Kramers, has already worked on the shore crew for Team Oracle. (Max’s dad, designer Dirk Kramers, contributed design expertise to the project.)

What the Scout team found out was that their combined knowledge was enough to support their plans. Flanigan says he especially liked learning about the materials and the actual boatbuilding process. Other team members greatly increased their knowledge of electronics, hydrodynamics, and marine engineering.

The current boat is Scout IV. They started out with a much smaller boat, but it wasn’t large enough to carry the solar panels that they needed.

At this point, Scout is a little behind schedule. “All summer, we’ve been saying ‘Two Weeks!’,” says Flanigan, “but now we’re saying ‘Next Year.’ We’ve put too much into it not to wait and do it right. We have time to focus now on publicity and get more people excited about it.”

They also plan to do much more testing so that it really is ready to deal with anything that the ocean can throw at it.

The boat is a little under 150 lbs. “We’re happy with the shape, we’re happy with the performance,” says Flanigan.

For the most part, this is a garage-built boat, which also had some help from Henry Elliot at IYRS, who sprayed the hull with Duratec.

Flanigan built the female mold based on drawings from Max Kramers. He then had to transport the 13-ft mold, which weighed about 400 lbs, on top of a stationwagon from Bucknell College to Tiverton.

“That’s where we got the first donation of Divynicell, which we cut into strips, laid inside the mold and Gorilla glued inside,” he says. After fairing the mold, they laid down the carbon fiber and vacuum-bagged the hull. “Then we flipped it, and did more fairing!”

Much of the process has been videoptaped. “We had good intentions of doing even more taping,” says Flanigan, “but we didn’t always pull through.”

Propulsion is a trolling motor with a composite shaft, fiberglassed into place. The props are swept back to minimize accumulation of debris.

The power source is solar panels. “Dylan did a lot of research on that part of the project. Roof top panels need to meet a certain ‘hail rating’ and that’s what we looked at.”

The boat will head for for the coast of Spain, where Columbus launched his boats headed West.

The team is now doing seatrials. They are using a heavy duty laptop computer with electronics designed to handle the navigation. “It’s not self-correcting all the time, but it can tell the sensitivity of the rudder.”

Once Scout is launched, it’s on its own. If something goes wrong, “we’ll just watch it become a message in a bottle,” says Flanigan. The boat will not be transmitting an identifying signal. “That takes up too much power,” he says.

Will Homeland Security be interested in Scout? Flanigan says, “Technically it’s buoy. There are no rules – yet – covering autonomous boats.”

Since the boat will be completely sealed up, there will be no way to get into the electronics once it is launched. Everything will be sealed at the last possible second. The boat will send out messages every two hours while it is travelling.

What if someone scoops it up? “There will be writing all over it,” says Flanigan. “If we see it going 30 knots in the wrong direction, we’ll know someone picked it up.”

Until launch time, the team will continue to work on the electronics. “We need to do a lot of testing,” he says, “We need to make sure we run it through at least 20 days of testing to make sure there are no glitches in the code.”

The boat’s deck is built at a slight angle to get the best light for the solar panels. This feature should also help it flip right back up if it should be overturned some how. “The boat is really quite light,” says Flanigan.

The team is already thinking about the future. “We did this for fun, but who knows who might have a use for this? Scout would be a perfect boat for many different applications. Maybe we can get a grant. If nothing else, we’ll have more projects coming up.”

The crew also learned about the nitty-gritty aspects of boatbuilding, especially living with carbon dust and splinters.

The guys on the team are, of course, looking forward to going to Spain to greet Scout when it arrives.

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