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Aber SailBot interview

The autonomous Raspberry Pi-powered robot yacht built by British students that competes worldwide

A custom-built fibreglass hull contains all of the electronics needed to power the SailBot

How did you get into making and racing autonomous sailing boats?

Dan Clark: It was because the opportunity arose, really. I mean, robotics has always been a great interest to me and then when the opportunity came up to do something like this, I jumped at the chance.

Louis Taylor: The department does quite a lot of research into autonomous sailing and they helped us start a team to actually build something for the [International Robotic Sailing Regatta (SailBot)] competition.

Which competitions have you been in so far with the Aber SailBot?

DC: Last year in the summer we did SailBot 2013, which was in [Boston, Massachusetts, USA]. Then we did the World Robotic Sailing Championships, which was held in Brest in the north of France. This year we’re going to be doing the same two competitions again, but in different places.

LT: This year SailBot is in [San Francisco, California, USA] in June and World Robotic Sailing Championship is in Galway, in Ireland.

A custom-built fibreglass hull contains all of the electronics needed to power the SailBot
A custom-built fibreglass hull contains all of the electronics needed to power the SailBot

Are you particularly looking forward to one over the other?

LT: I think SailBot because we have quite a lot of… unfinished business there. We were narrowly beaten by the US Naval Academy by a few points [to first place].

What made you choose the Raspberry Pi as a way to power your SailBot?

LT: We needed some sort of brains for the boat and it needed to be somewhat low- powered, somewhat compact enough to fit inside the boat. We wanted to have the freedom to choose pretty much any language we wanted and obviously the Raspberry Pi lets us do that because it’s running a full Linux operating system. It meant we could develop software on our Linux laptops, debug it on the laptops and then just put it on the Pi and it would work instantly. Essentially we wanted something that would run on Linux.

DC: We already know how to use it, so it saved us from having to learn anything that’s particularly new.

Had you used the Raspberry Pi in any projects before the Aber SailBot?

LT: I had. I’ve also used the BeableBone and the BeagleBoard, which are both considerably more expensive than the Pi.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is one of the sponsors for the SailBot, how did that come about?

DC: In May last year we went to Cambridge to present the boat at the Cambridge Raspberry Pi Jam; as it turned out Jack Lang – one of the founding members of the Raspberry Pi foundation – was there. He saw us and our presentation where we said we needed some money and he came up to us at the end to tell us the Foundation could probably help us with that.

LT: It was pretty good, because at that point we were uncertain as whether we could actually go to the competition or not, because we hadn’t raised nearly enough money to actually get ourselves to Boston. So with a month to go to the competition, we were still not sure whether we were actually going. We had a boat that worked, but no money.

You’re working on a second version of the SailBot, will it be ready for the competitions this year?

LT: Yes. So at the moment, we’ve been inundated with coursework, exams and other univeristy work over the last few months. But now term is finishing, we have a good three weeks to put some really solid work on the boat. So essentially we’re going to work full-time on it over the next couple of weeks.

DC: It should be ready to sail, at least partially in the next two weeks.

LT: At this point we can stop doing hardware and focus more on the electronics and soldering.

Once the second iteration of the SailBot is complete, what will be the fate of the original boat?

DC: That at the moment is currently kind of designated as a research boat to an extent. We’ve had a few ideas of scientific papers we’d like to write around the topic. So this boat will allow us to implement the experiments we need to do.

LT: Also it’s good to have two platforms for our software, because the electronics and control system in terms of hardware is almost identical. We can pretty much put the same code on both boats and it should work. So we can use that as a test for the other boat.

What else have you been using the Raspberry Pi for?

LT: I’ve used it for a small robot in the past with another robotics team, so that was a small cute little thing that picked up cubes and used vision to detect where it was. I’m also working on another similar robot, as my pet project.

Do you have any other projects you want to do in the future that is Raspberry Pi related?

DC: For a long time we’ve wanted to do a quadcopter that’s Pi-powered.

Finally, what’s your current state in terms of sponsorship?

LT: We’re quite actively looking for sponsorship; our current main sponsors are QinetiQ, ARM and Kano computing. We’ve currently raised £2,500 this year, but still need £900. You can find out more information on how to sponsor us from the Aber Sailbot website.

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