This story was first published in The Waterloo Region Record.

Is a sailboat still a sailboat if it doesn’t have any sails? Or how about a rudder? Or a keel? Or even a deck?

From left, Seamus Johnston, Jessen Liang, Richard Li, and Ian Hill, hold a hull the autonomous sailing team

From left, Seamus Johnston, Jessen Liang, Richard Li and Ian Hill display a hull they’re working on at UW.                  Peter Lee, Waterloo Region Record

The members of the University of Waterloo’s Autonomous Sailing Team worked feverishly to finish their autonomous boat to avoid answering those questions ahead of a recent public unveiling at Conestogo Lake — but time wasn’t on their side to transform what looked like a small canoe into a fully functioning sailboat.

“It just needs to be assembled,” said team member Ian Hill, 21, seated outside their work bay in the Sedra Student Design Centre on the ground floor of the Engineering 5 building on campus. “We’re not that far behind schedule, we’re just behind schedule.”

Even finished, the boat is missing one conspicuous component — a pilot. The students are building the school’s first autonomous sailboat in more than a decade, one that can navigate without human input.

And while countless research dollars have gone into developing autonomous cars, trucks and drones, team co-founder Seamus Johnston thinks autonomous boats hold just as much promise to change the world.

“Those are all great fields, but I think there’s a lot to be said for marine travel,” says the 20-year-old.

The technology isn’t limited to sailing and could be used on large commercial ships such as tankers, or for scientific research on ocean currents, water temperatures or marine animal populations.

Johnston expects autonomous cars will go mainstream before boats given the massive amount of private investment by companies like Google, but he says the sailing technology isn’t far behind.

“It’s a great industry that no one has really gotten super involved in.”

The then-unnamed Waterloo sailboat promised to be a sight to behold once seaworthy at about five metres tall from the keel to the top of the sail, and about two metres long. It is made of carbon fibre and weighs about 22 kilograms. The project isn’t tied to any classes or grades, but is an opportunity for team members to gain experience, make connections and help build a resume.

Using data collected from an on-board compass, a GPS, wind sensors and cameras, the boat can determine where it needs to go and calculate the best way to get there. If it can get there by simply repositioning the sails to catch the wind, it will. But if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, the boat is capable of tacking — a sailing term for moving in a zigzag pattern toward the desired destination.

Autonomous sailing team

Last year’s UW autonomous sailing entry is shown in action.

“Our boat can optimize that zigzag based on the speed it knows it can reach at every angle relative to the wind,” says Johnston. “It’ll create an optimum path and do it in the least amount of time.”

The boat will dwarf the team’s first attempt at an autonomous boat designed last year, known as “Lil Yachty.” The red and white sailboat was only about 1.3 metres long and about two metres tall. The hull was prefabricated fibreglass that the students bought from the United States Navy for about $300 and added all the mechanical and electrical components themselves.

With a bigger boat this year comes higher expenses. The team estimates it cost about $6,000 to get Lil Yachty in the water last year, and much of that was sponsored by the university and went toward buying tools and materials. This year, because the students are building the boat from scratch, they estimate the cost will be about $12,000, which was mostly covered thanks to sponsors and in-kind donations.

They’re also rubbing shoulders with other design teams in the 20,000 square-foot design space inside Engineering 5, including the Midnight Sun solar car team, the UW self-driving car team and the UW concrete canoe team. It’s been a great opportunity to bounce ideas off each other, work through design problems, and build a sense of community. There are about 15 core members of the team, along with about 20 other people who help out now and then.

Lil Yachty competed in the 2017 International Robotic Sailing Regatta in Annapolis, Md. last June, finishing sixth out of 11 teams. The last time UW fielded a team for the competition was at the inaugural event in 2006 in Kingston, where it tied for second (out of three teams).

As a first-year team last year, it was allowed to use a remote control to operate some of the key systems, such as the winch or rudder, but in 2018 its plan is to go completely autonomous for the next competition in June at Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester County, Mass.

The 2017 regatta challenges included:

• Station keeping (the boat must remain inside a 40 metre square box for five minutes);

• Precision navigation (sailing around buoys set in a 50 metre triangle);

• Payload (moving cargo between two points);

• Collision avoidance (testing the boat’s ability to avoid an object);

• Search (the boat must locate an object inside a 100 metre radius circle);

• Endurance (the boat must sail around four buoys for up to eight hours. Each lap is about one nautical mile).

It took about 500 hours to build Lil Yachty, but the students say they’ve already exceeded about 3,000 hours designing, testing and building this year’s boat, including 18-hour days in the shop over the past few months.

“It’s been a haze,” says team co-founder Richard Li.

The team’s recent demonstration was slated for the Conestoga Sailing Club  at Conestogo Lake, about 30 kilometres northwest Waterloo.

It was be the first test of the new boat with all the electrical and sailing components installed. It’s difficult testing in Canada because most local bodies of water are frozen for half the year.

Click here for more information on the team.