Most products built for oil and gas companies don’t have pleasant environmental ramifications. But the creators of a self-sailing, data-collecting catamaran called Robotboat are hoping to dip into the big wallets of big oil while giving back to oceanographers and other environmental scientists at the same time.
"NOAA does not have the budget that the oil industry does," says Eamon Carrig, who helped build the device. "But we plan on providing scientists with a lot of valuable data almost as a happy accident of doing these other revenue-generating activities."
Robotboat is propelled by a sail that automatically adjusts itself to the wind direction. A computer on board keeps track of its own location and the location to which it has been assigned to navigate. If it gets knocked over, it rights itself. Depending on the wind patterns, the boat’s path might vary greatly, but it figures out how to get to its assigned coordinates automatically.
Walter Holemans built the first version of Robotboat in 1994. It sank because the electronics on board were too heavy. Since then, he and his team of three have completed four more versions, and they’re planning to make one more before putting Robotboat to work.
What jobs are there for a little sailboat that can steer itself? Plenty, if it’s armed with the right sensors. Thanks to solar panels, that’s no problem for Robotboat.
"If there exists an electronic sensor, we can probably [use] it," Carrig says.
Robotboat measures temperature, wind angles, wind speed, water salinity, water quality, hydrocarbon and pretty much anything else. That kind of information can be applied in endless ways, but it is particularly appealing to two groups: offshore energy companies and scientists. One of them has more money than the other.
T.J. Edwards, another member of the team, says that oil companies have expressed interest in using Robotbot to measure currents around rigs and search for leaks. Robotbot’s creators plan to provide scientists with research gathered in the meantime.
Currently, scientists often rely on either manned ships or a system of buoys called Argo to gather information about the ocean. One is expensive, the other directed by the ocean’s currents.
Other self-navigating ocean tools have taken a similar approach to Robotboat. Protei and Harbor Wing have both developed similar autonomous catamarans. Liquid Robotics created a wave-powered robot that could complete some of the same tasks as Robotboat, though for obvious reasons it doesn’t move as fast.
Carrig says Robotboat will be less expensive than other sailboat options. The current prototype was built with about $40,000 of materials, and the plan is to get material costs down to $15,000 in the final version. Making automated watercraft more affordable could be good for both oil industry bank accounts and existing scientific researchers, but also for missions that have yet to be thought up.
"We’re hoping that by making available this technology at a much lower price point than it currently costs will open a new market for people to look at things previously too expensive to do," Carrig says.