GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 10, 2013

Fishtown Local: The sailing robots are here!

Fishtown Local
Gordon Baird

---- — This is the day! They are finally here and ready to change the world.

They are Sailbots. Streaming toward Gloucester all through the weekend from colleges and schools across the land are the sailing robots coming to do battle in the outer harbor.

Sounds like a kids’ book, doesn’t it? The robots on their way to compete on the water?

Of course, there are a few humans attached to the sailbots: 17 robotics teams from academia are now here. Our own Gloucester effort is run by the enigmatic Coach L — aka Kurt Lichtenwald — the physics and robotics master at GHS.

A visit to the infamous Room 3404 on the top floor of the west wing of the high school reminds one of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab from the original movie. Gizmo’s and parts dangling from the ceiling, resistors, capacitors, gears, accelerometers, wires and twangy things sprawled all over the counters, walls and every surface packed with designs and complicated constructions — what a place!

But at the center of the mayhem lie the twin gems of the program, the two Sailbots, rigged, programmed and almost ready to make history.

The last touches are still left to perfect, the last programming flourishes to add.

The simpler of the two Sailbots is the 1-meter monohull, the more traditional looking boat with a regular main and jib —mostly similar to typical race boats out on the regular race courses. That boat has been water tested in the canal and showed incredible versatility and buoyancy. She could get knocked down by a heavy gust, but she just squirreled up higher and higher into the wind and kept driving — which in sail racing, is a really good trait. This boat is also a very good “tacker,” meaning it changes direction easily.

The other boat is also 1 meter, but is a trimaran, a three-hull design, an orangey-red rocketship multihull that is the teams’ wildcard. A bunch of the college teams will have 2-meter boats, so we need our secret weapon to zing them.

In real boats, a 20-foot multihull will outperform a 20-foot monohull by a mile. However, this boat is not as good a “tacker” and can get stalled head-to-wind in the crucial tacking phase changing directions. It could be the fastest boat in the contest if it gets going in the right direction.

The three students who are the ringleaders of the kid part of the team — Derek, Ian and Alphonso — are three of the cleverest students you’d want to meet.

Local Peter Gaston is an advisor to the programming side but the kids are the experimenters and implementers. Gloucester Education Foundation bigwig Joe Rosa is also one of the program’s guardian angels.

There are five “events” that the boats have to compete in, and they are mind-bending problems to solve.

The easiest is a regular old 19-boat fleet race, set to start right off the Greasy Pole, in which the boats can be controlled by their remote guidance systems by Ian or Derek from shore. They can instruct the boats when to make their moves.

But the very next event is the dreaded station keeping contest, in which the boats must act totally autonomously (robot mode) to stay inside a 40-foot square box for five minutes without leaving the box. To further complicate this event, the boat leaving the box soonest after the five minutes expire receives a bonus point.

Next up is another sailbotic event in which, with no help, the boats must navigate a tight slalom-like course of many marks and a delineated track with many changes. Ouch, again, no human directives allowed. Then there is the Oklahoma land-rush style long distance race, also in robotic mode only, that will pit all 19 boats at once to a five-mile extravaganza over into and around the Niles beach side of the outer harbor. That should be fascinating as well as a little comical to see all these little robots out for a friendly fight-to-the-death match. Expect some fur to fly on that event, like Japanese fighting kites.

Finally, there is a judges close-up event where they minutely inspect the craft for their innovations, like the Westminster dog show. A sixth event is a demonstration-only event, a fully autonomous chase race where boats have to identify, find and chase another until they can successfully pass them.

Olin College is organizing the entire event with lots of help from Endicott College, whose new Gloucester headquarters is at 33 Commercial St. adjacent to the race courses. The public is invited to scope out the action today, Tuesday and Wednesday right off the Fort in late mornings and afternoons. Suffice it to say, this is an opportunity that won’t come along every day.

The sailing robots are here! Come on down and watch the mayhem and the fun.

Gordon Baird is a local actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine, and producer of the community access TV show “Gloucester Chicken Shack.”