UBC SailBot competition tests student inventiveness on the high seas

A robotically controlled sailboat from the U.S. Naval Academy sails past ducks on English Bay in Vancouver. REUTERS/Andy …Engineering students from the University of British Columbia are putting their skills to work on the high seas at the annual SailBot competition this week.

Teams from Canada, the U.S. and Europe are vying for the title of International Robotic Sailing Champion in the sixth annual event, held in B.C. at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. The event was started by UBC grad Erik Berzins in 2004, Metro News reports, and now pits worldwide teams against each other on the open waters.

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The technology that the ships use has come a long way since that first year, Berzins says. That first year, Berzins and his team had a few schools come out to Vancouver mostly to showcase the boat they'd made. Now, the boats can navigate themselves.

"These boats are fully autonomous now, which is pretty amazing," Berzins said to Metro News.

By using wind sensors and GPS tracking, the boats can steer their ways through the waters at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club with relative ease, although the teams follow nearby in a dingy to control the boats when needed. In certain events, however, manual control can incur a penalty for the team or is forbidden altogether. In the final event, the long distance race, manually controlling the boat earns the team a 50% penalty deduction from their points.

At the time of writing, the team from UBC had pulled off a time of 1:29:20 the long distance race. While the lead was slim for the home team going into the final day of competition (UBC lead Olin College and U.S. Naval Academy GTB by just one point), the win in the final event of the competition may just be enough to dethrone the three-time champions, the U.S. Naval Academy.

You can check out a video from Day 1 of the event here from The Vancouver Sun.