Hacker Challenge: Sail The Atlantic

We found it incredible that — apparently — no one has sailed an autonomous sailboat across the Atlantic successfully. Compared to an electric craft, sail-powered platforms ought to reduce having to carry batteries or other fuel and enable long-duration missions. The problem, of course, is the sailing conditions in the Atlantic.

The challenge is the focus of the Microtranssat challenge which started in 2010. You can think of the challenge as a race, but not in the conventional sense. Participants can launch their 8 foot (or less) craft any time between July and December, and it doesn’t matter which direction they go. They simply have to cross the Atlantic. If more than one boat makes it, the fastest is the winner.

The current leader is the SailBuoy. This Norwegian entry has made it halfway, but no further. However, it has sailed quite a distance in other places, so perhaps it will make it soon. You can see SailBuoy afloat in the video below.

If you are a sailor, you know that operating a sailboat isn’t that hard. It varies a bit depending on the type of sail, but you are balancing the force of the wind versus the force of the water on your keel and rudder to generate motion. The trick, of course, is to manage the sailing conditions in the Atlantic which is a lot more challenging than your local lake.

An Arduino or two is sufficient for an autopilot, and if you don’t want to build your own hull, you can always hack something else.

We have seen tremendous creativity from Hackaday readers all over the world in response to our many challenges. It seems hard to imagine that a few of our readers couldn’t handily win Microtranssat. If you want to start smaller, there are always shorter races like the World Robotic Sailing Championships and Sailbot.

26 thoughts on “Hacker Challenge: Sail The Atlantic

  1. Saying that a sail boat is a better option than a (presumably) solar electric craft, because is doesn’t have to carry as many batteries, is like saying a solar PV solar is better because it doesn’t have to carry as many bottles of compressed air. Both are powered by the elements. In the doldrums, solar electric is probably the better choice, in the arctic, wind is probably the better choice.

    In my opinion solar yachts are set to boom. Like with wind, you only have non stored propulsion when the elements allow, but unlike wind gear, the cost of PV panels falls by 23% per annum, and if you use it as it comes in, no storage is required. One neat feature about this salvaged resource is that it only comes out at day time, when we can see, so making the most of your supply, does not need any stressful night time sailing. Also as the main drive is electric, the stored energy system (batteries) integrate directly with the primary drive, while a sail craft requires a independent energy store (batteries or fuel), motor and propeller.

    Wind usually also means wild waters, while the smoothest tropical cruise, usually involves very little wind, and lots of sun.

    All that being said, I live inland and have not spent much time on the water.

    1. been on a catamaran that was all electric, had solar panels and when sailing could use the propellers to charge the batteries. it was pretty cool, though I guess was a one off prototype made by a French guy in the 90s.

      1. And since 95 the cost of solar has dropped from US$8 / watt to about US$0,30 / watt. What was an expensive installation just got 26 times cheaper. Or if you want, the price fell by 96%. Solar is cheap if you use it as it comes in.
        What better use than on a yacht?

        1. What better to use in salt water? I don’t know, probably anything that doesn’t completely rely on the operation of electronics? PV panels might have gotten cheaper, but I sure as hell don’t want to trust my life to a solar setup on the open ocean. It’s kind of hard for a sail to short out, after all.

          You’re assertion that you can just “stop” at night is rather interesting as well. Do you plan on pulling over into the oceanic rest area?

    1. Ha! I hate to admit how much I’d like to see that happen cause it’d be interesting. I’m imagining 2 liter soda bottles full of Bolivian Booger Sugar, solar cells, brushless motors and hardware for GPS/course correction. Fleets of small autonomous surface torpedos aimed at Florida. Stopping near the shore waiting to be gathered by fisherman used to fishing for square grouper.

  2. Would a vertical wind turbine driving an underwater propeller be allowed in this competition? With such a setup, the wind direction wouldn’t matter, except for a headwind too stiff for the boat to make headway. Up to that speed the boat would be able to drive straight upwind if needed.

    Could possibly get by without a gearbox by using an impeller drawing water in and pumping it out the rear, just like a jet drive mounted on the bottom end of an outboard motor in place of the conventional right angle gearbox and prop.

      1. I’m not sure that’d be practical though.
        The vast density difference between the two mediums would require such an oversized turbine you’d be top heavy. Ballast to counteract it could leave your craft at the whims of the current with such a now undersized impeller or propeller.

  3. You misspelled transat. It is the short form of trans atlantic, not trans satellite or trans satisfaction or whatever.
    And your research was incomplete. Swiss students had tried this already in 2008/2009.

    1. They made a nice boat and registered it for the original (and subseuqently cancelled) Microtransat 2008, but I don’t think it ever crossed the Atlantic. The boat lost its mast during tests in the Mediterranean in 2012 and I don’t think its sailed again since. Look for a video called “avalon toulon 2” on youtube and watch from about 6 minutes in.

  4. Moreover, in the international maritime laws framework, an unmanned vessel is not protected against picking it up and taking possession of it in international waters. Liability and the demand to follow international navigation rules is another important topic.

  5. “picked up by a fishing boat” appears to be the greatest burden – necessity for anti-pirate counter measures liked armed PMCs on every 2.4 meter vessel. “I am not the autonomous captain now.”
    Ugh – after some review of the vessels launched – there is a painfully noticeable glaring error in design and implementation to sailing the Atlantic from the northern routes employed. Many of those designs would be better suited to a more southern route – damn it all I need a bottle of Don Julio and a few hundred dollars to squander – [silently ponders if this empty Amazon cardboard box could be seal coated]

  6. Cool article, thanks for sharing. Had not idea about this.

    I’ve had visions, though not detailed enough into more than brainstorming sessions not documented well to automate sailing processes in general for transatlantic crossing. Read into and studies the self powered ways.

    I have a windsurf board and haven’t learned sailing well enough yet to detail as I am planning construction of a tri-maran system, i.e. windsurf board raised in the middle with a canoe and kayak (or another canoe) on each side. Really more of a catamaran model for now to learn on is in the works with ability to un-ratchet strap the windsurf board from the center transom if needed and for disassembly since I want to be portable . The biggest hurdle is the skirt or skirt(s) for the canoe(s) as I am back and forth between waterproof fabric or composite fiber or plastic since I am planning a generator and battery for the trolling motor and can add solar cells to the skirts.

    Sailing process automation seems feasible, though more weight is required that may be able to be kept as ballast if cabled strategically is my thought as I’ve gone off on tangents with my project.

  7. Hit post comment without review Edit: First line “no” instead of “not”. Third sentence “studied” instead of “studies.” Other grammar isn’t my concern. Amazing… this vision started from “canoeing” across the Atlantic that manifested into I need to learn sailing in way more detail and cross the Atlantic in a future houseboat scaled down to the smallest for the lifestyle I want to live and deal with the de-commissioning or transfer if I don’t keep.

  8. I’ve been intracranially planning one of these things for a while and am plucking up the courage to propose this as a project for my local hacker collective. It would be a perfect project – with so many dimensions requiring expertise in so many areas. It would be akin to a space mission without rockets. APRS could be used for communication on the cheap using RPis and SDR transceivers.

  9. We are also working on that for some time :-) We are a student project at Technical University Darmstadt, Germany and already competed two times at the World Robotic Sailing Championship (last time 2013). Currently we are constructing our own hull for a 2,2m boat and are developing electrical components and algorithms. We hope to do some testing next year and make our first try in 2019.
    Check our homepage: http://www.st-darmstadt.de (sadly, currently only in german. You may try: https://translate.google.de/translate?hl=de&sl=de&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.st-darmstadt.de)

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