Sailing Robot Team

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Team Meeting 24th November 2016

During our most recent team meeting (held at Boldrewood) we discussed our ‘physical’ plans for the boats. Various issues were discussed, mainly centered around waterproofing.

Running wires up the outside of the mast worked last year, however we discussed the possibility  of running the wires through the mast, either boring a hole through the current one, or making a new mast from affordable carbon-fibre tube.

We faced problems tacking last year, despite several coding improvements that could be made, we felt more should be done to improve maneuverability. This opened the discussion to the importance of weight minimisation and (perhaps more importantly) distribution.

We also discussed more robust and reliable waterproofing solutions. Ideas included creating an entirely dry enclosure using waterproof glue (used in dry suit repair), using low density blue foam to slow water penetration or perhaps  relying on strategically placed air bags to provide up-thrust. Crucially however, putting much of the electronics in an easy access waterproof box (similar to a Tupperware container) would be a great way of combining reliability with feasibility.

We took a look at the 2nd (blue) hull. We discussed how we would implement the deck, what materials we could use, and exactly how we could fit all the necessary components inside, and how to ensure nothing got too wet!

Sailing Robot Extravaganza Part II

Everyone liked Part I? Yeah? Good, knew you would.
Part II event page is up right here:
You know what to do 🙂
Just in case you need a reminder on what’s it all about:
In this series, we’ll be setting you various challenges to let you know about our activities. You’ll get a go at the many facets of working on a sailing robot, and get a feel on what you’d like to work on.
Plus, weather permitting, we’ll head off to the waters, and you’ll get to experience remote-controlling the Black Python!

A Word of Thanks

With all the celebrations (and organisational tasks for the immediate future of the society) done and dusted, we feel it is high time we wrote a little token of thanks for three parties who played a significant role in our path to success.

First of all, a warm thank you to Nigel Brown, founder of family-owned sailmaking company CatSails ( Nigel, who (bravely!) believed in our project, supported us with providing not just a No. 2 suit of sails, but also a bona fide ‘golf box’ for the Black Python to rest in in plane flights and over trips between the hotel and the competition site. The box was even replete with specially-shaped foam padding for levels of comfort fit for a king (boat).


Such a thing of beauty.

Second up, SailsEtc ( A small but very well-known company in the field of RC sailing equipment, they gifted us a No. 3 suit of sails. Initially we weren’t even sure if we needed such a small set at all, but we were soon proven wrong. Without these sails, our boat would not have been the only one in its class to successfully sail in all weather conditions throughout the course of the competition. This was especially true on the very final day.


Truly a magnificent product.

Last but not least, a huge, warm thanks to Lester Gilbert, one of the world-leading experts in RC sailing boats (who’s conveniently disguised as a professor of e-learning at the University). Lester spontaneously offered his help since the very beginning of our project. From giving us a lecture on RC sailing (which really differs from “full-sized” sailing), to helping us on all technical issues and doubts we had throughout development, and providing us with a healthy amount of his personal RC sailing hardware to work with, he definitely was instrumental in our journey. Oh, and you can find him here

If it wasn’t for all of them, we wouldn’t have been at the top of the podium. This is why, with this post, we would like to say thank you, and consider them a part of our team.

Sailing Robot Extravaganza Part I

Don’t forget, introduction meeting’s tomorrow evening (page link as a little reminder ;):
Before that though, let me tell you about our all-original two-part Sailing Robot Extravaganza Series!
For Part I, we’ll gather next Thursday, 27th October in the Design Studio in Building 177 (aka B177/3011) at Boldrewood, from 6 – 8 p.m. Part II’s going to be the Thursday after, same time and place. (Hope you can see a trend here, with the meetings on Thursday evenings in the Design Studio and such)
In this series, we’ll be setting you various challenges to let you know about our activities. You’ll get a go at the many facets of working on a sailing robot, and get a feel on what you’d like to work on.
Plus, weather permitting, we’ll head off to the waters, and you’ll get to experience remote-controlling the Black Python!
Check out the event page for Parts I and II right below:
Hope you can make it for both!

Friday – Obstacle Avoidance

Final challenge of the competition – make runs up and down a rectangular pathway in the water. At the third or fourth run, orange buoys will be placed in the middle, and across the entire width, of the path. The boat must then recognise and sail round the buoys, then back in the path’s area, and complete the run to finish. Also the standings so far are…. we are joint second!


Slightly confusing I know, but take our word for it. Plus you know our final score anyway

We started off the day with solving why our boat was going off in weird directions. We figured that this happened because we had removed our heeling compensation, since it never was seemingly effective during boat calibration. Thomas focused on the faulty compensation, while Sophia and Sebastien got on the rib with the boat to record some images of the buoys. We stuck a GoPro on the Black Python’s nose to do this. The great outdoors proved too bright for the camera though. A little brainstrorming later, we came to our ingenious solution:



Turns out our heeling compensation works swimmingly. In fact we could have used it since Day One. It never was faulty during calibration at all. Oh well.

Go time. It sailed in the wrong direction at first again (we still do not know why it does that). But once it got back on track, the Black Python performed amazingly. In fact it was so amazing, the obstacle-bringers had trouble bringing the obstacles onto the course in time before it already began its third run. We excitedly watched the dashboard as the Black Python sailed closer and closer to the buoys. Finally it detected them, and we broke into cheer. Then it bumped into the obstacles, and got run over by a rib that was towing the buoys. One of the shrouts broke. We returned to land.

Post analysis of our run showed that the Black Python had no chance in avoiding the buoys, since they were placed outside the set obstacle zone (which we then programmed into the RPi as well). On the other hand it still probably would have hit the buoys anyway since the detection was quite late, and it was going the quickest ever this whole week.

Thursday – Area Scanning

Welcome to Part I of the two-part series called ‘The Report on the Final Two Days of Portugal that are Way Long Overdue’.


Today’s rules were: 27 little squares arranged in an ‘L’. Get your boat to first sail to the start line which is along an edge of the ‘L’, then cross as many squares as possible, and finally sail to a finish line, which is a little bit away from the ‘L’.

To try and repeat the IMU error we got a couple times during competition runs – in order to solve it – we took the boat for a stroll on ground. Frustratingly enough, just like in previous attempts to coax the error to show itself, we failed to do so.

Having no choice we sent the Black Python to the waters for the test. On the first launch, it… just sailed off to a wild position. We double-checked our waypoints in the launch file, and they were all good. Yet, it sailed further and further away from the start line.


Confusion and worry continued to skyrocket, when Sebastien finally caught the cause – we launched the launch file for a different competition task. After making the switch, that error was fixed. But with that gone, another one arrived. Lo and behold, it was the IMU error, again. The RPi was rebooted – success was not achieved. Also we then had tacking issues.

The Black Python finally started sailing on course after we re-launched it to jibe instead of tack. But because we did not deserve to have a good time today, it started to veer again. Pier noticed that the sail servo winch seemed to have stopped working. Flipping on the remote control confirmed suspicion. We decided that then was really the time to take it back to land. Also, because we did not deserve to have a good time today, when we lifted it out of the water, it was palpably a lot heavier than when we dropped it onto the water. Once again, it was back to land to unleash the ocean within.

Silver lining in the storm was our electronics were safe from the sea water this time. Our waterproofing had worked! So at least we had that going. Both servos were replaced, along with a couple electrical wires that got wet. Later in the day, we got the chance for a second try. With our hopes high for a better performance this time, we managed to get nothing but disappointment.

Some squares did get covered at first, but then Black Python turned to a wrong heading angle and stuck to it for a good while, getting further and further away from the scanning area. Just as it was getting back towards the sailing area, another dramatic failure occurred: the thread controlling the main sail tore. That was when we had to call it for the day. In the end, the second try did not score us more points than our first.