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The ocean’s run amok with radio-controlled idiots

2007 November 17
I should have seen it coming. In fact, I did see it coming but I wasn't prescient enough to understand it.

It was only about a decade ago when electronics manufacturers figured out that the newfangled GPS satellite navigation systems could be linked to autopilots, allowing skippers to program highly accurate waypoints before a voyage and have the boat sail automatically to those points.

We were sitting around a lunch table when one of the more fertile minds posited that it would be possible to move a boat from harbor to harbor using this method, but without anyone actually on board.
The discussion had arisen because I was about to take my boat from Southern California to San Francisco Bay, and for those of you who don't know that stretch of barren coastline, it can be a nasty trip into lots of wind and sea.

His suggestion was that we could use some basic radio-control equipment from a model airplane to start and stop the engine, and then turn the boat over to the GPS/autopilot brain. We would take my boat out of the harbor, get off in a dinghy, and using the radio control for the engine, send the boat on its way.

A couple of days later we would take a boat to the Golden Gate for the rendezvous and stop my boat by radio control for reboarding. I'd have moved the yacht with none of the usual agony.

It was an intriguing thought, but wiser heads said something like "Are you out of your friggin' minds?" They pointed out the possibilities of encountering something large and solid like a freighter. Those who had trouble programming their VCRs suggested the boat might easily wind up in Hawaii or Auckland. We ended up splitting the lunch tab and the whole thing was forgotten.

Or it was until I happened to see a news item that a bunch of Welsh academics have scheduled the first transatlantic robot sailing race. And in fact, are already testing their unmanned vessels.

You should know from the Ls in my name that I've got Welsh blood in the stream, so I can say what I want about mad Welshmen with impunity. As to academics, well, let's not go there.

Here's the deal. The race will start from Brittany next year and the winner will be the first to reach a finish line between the tips of St. Lucia and Martinique in the Caribbean. That the finish line is nearly 30 miles wide says something about their confidence in accurate navigation.

The total distance for the race is about 4,000 miles, and the boats must be wind-powered, fully autonomous, and self-sufficient, which means they must rely on solar panels and batteries. They can't be any longer than 13 feet or weigh more than 88 pounds, which for comparison's sake, is a bit shorter and quite a bit lighter than a Laser.

Those who read this column know that I occasionally work up a fine rant when someone sets off on a foolhardy voyage simply to break some weird record, like sailing a dinghy across the Atlantic. I don't have a problem with them doing it: suicide being a personal thing in my book. What I resent is putting others in peril to rescue these idiots from themselves.

But never in my most rum-fueled dreams have I ever pictured an ocean dotted with robot sailboats zipping around.

Conceived by Dr. Mark Neal from the computer science department of Aberystwyth University in Wales, the race has attracted interest from the UK, Canada, Austria, France and, of course, the USA.

Dr. Neal, in a burst of understatement, notes that "This may seem esoteric and trivial," but says there are a number of uses for such robotic vessels such as taking weather observations in remote parts of the ocean. He adds that the challenges of building a robot that can be autonomous for many months are similar to those for everything from mobile phones to space craft and that there will be a trickle-down of knowledge.

That's fine but it all seems a bit, ahem, dangerous to turn a bunch of robot sailboats loose on an unsuspecting world. I don't think a supertanker would have much concern about a collision, but for a cruising yacht in midocean, a collision at even moderate speed with a 13-foot sailboat could ruin your day.

My concerns may be a bit premature because the good doctor and his academic chums held a trial regatta in a protected Welsh harbor and the results weren't promising for a 4,000-mile open-ocean crossing, let alone sailing 400 feet by themselves. Apparently some of the steering systems failed and/or the boats didn't like the breezes of 20 knots, which might prove a problem next fall in the Atlantic.

My Austrian is a but rusty but I gather that a team from their engineering school won this year's trials using a fiberglass keel boat as well as last year's with a miniature staysail schooner. The French used a largish radio-control boat with a tent-like superstructure clearly stolen from the Confederate ironclad Merrimack, while the Welsh chose something with the grace of a wooden shoe.

The boats were designed to read the wind direction and the angle of heel to trim the sails, but I'm not sure they could

tack into head winds: perhaps they'll simply close reach around the Atlantic until they find the finish line.

If the prospect of a bunch of robot sailboats groping blindly around the oceans isn't daunting enough, I see that another British group, this time a security company with the motto "Science and Technology That Makes a Difference" (as opposed to those that don't?), has come up with another disturbing watercraft.

Its Sentry is an unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance craft that the company says "boasts advanced stealth design" and can hit speeds of 50 knots.

What they've created is just what the world needs: an unmanned jetski. It is the new breed of Impersonal Water Craft (IWC).

Some 12-feet long and 4-feet wide, it can be fitted with cameras, communication gear, and while they don't specifically mention it, armament. It will be controlled from a laptop somewhere over the horizon, and they expect it to be used for harbor patrol, battlefield recon and damage assessment.

Perhaps we could train these IWCs to go out and either sink the robotic sailboats or just annoy the hell out of them until their little electronic brains fry.

Stuart Little … where are you when we need you?