GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 11, 2013

'Sailbot' 2013

Robotics students put skills to watery tests

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — Sailboats measuring at about three or four feet high graced the waterfront near Pavilion Beach Monday, gliding across the water under the remote control direction of students and engineers from as far as Wales and as close as our own Gloucester High School.

The International Robotic Sailing competition — known as Sailbot — is the city’s first time hosting together the seventh annual competition that drew in 13 teams and 16 boats to try their hand at navigation and racing this year. Iain Kerr of the Ocean Alliance, who helped bring the program to Gloucester and is facilitating it, said he has enjoyed watching the students experiment and run their boats.

“I think it’s going great,” Kerr said. “I think we’ve had lots of technical problems, but actually what this is all about.

“It’s so easy to do this stuff in the lab, but that’s what this is all about,” Kerr said. “There’s two things that I like that I’m seeing a lot of — the different teams are helping each other and the real pleasure of them seeing a real world application.”

Gloucester High School students programmed two sailboats as part of a class led by coach Kurt Lichtenwald. The class presented an opportunity to combine interests in sailing and in robotics. That was an opportunity that Gloucester High student and soon-to-be senior Kaleb Church jumped at.

“I’ve always been into sailing and I figured I might as well combine my two interests, do something fun, and add my knowledge to the group,” Church said.

Gloucester High School’s boats sat on tables across boats from Olin College and Tufts Monday afternoon. The teams tinkered with the engines mid-afternoon, switching from autonomous engines that had been programmed to steer the boats themselves around an obstacle course Monday morning to a control system that the programmers steered using an iPad.

Derek Buckley, who graduated from GHS on Sunday and is the lead programmer for one of Gloucester’s boats, tilted an iPad and the rudder on the GHS vessel propped on a table shifted sideways and back. Buckley plans to study chemical engineering at University of Massachusetts in Lowell this fall and this project piqued his interest.

“I did most of the programming on my own time because it’s just fun,” Buckley said.

The Sailbot competition continues through Wednesday, with various competitions and design tests upcoming. As of Monday afternoon, a team from Vancouver was winning the competition, having been the only team whose automated boat finished the morning’s obstacle course.

Gordon Baird, a sailor and Gloucester resident, helped guide the Gloucester teams and advise them on topics of sailboat racing.

“I’ve been here since 8:30 a.m., they haven’t taken a break, any of them,” Baird said about 4 p.m. Monday. “I’d say they’re working even harder than they do at school.”

Ocean Alliance, Olin College Endicott College and the City of Gloucester pulled the event together this year.

Mary Kay Taylor, director of education at Maritime Gloucester, the site where programmers repaired and fine tuned their boats between competitions, said the students have amazed her with their abilities.

“It’s cool for the high school kids because they don’t necessarily have unlimited resources,” Taylor said.

The action continues Tuesday and Wednesday right off Pavilion Beach late mornings and afternoons, and anyone is welcome to view. Students will complete navigational challenges Tuesday and Wednesday’s agenda will feature a long distance race from Niles Beach out to Eastern Point and back.

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.