Student’s autonomous boat ‘Scouts’ the Atlantic

Fourth-year computer science major Dave Pimentel wrote the navigation code for Scout Transatlantic, an autonomous boat on a mission to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Rhode Island to Spain.  Photo by Brooks Canaday. 

 When a friend with an ambi­tious goal to send an autonomous boat from Rhode Island to Spain approached David Pimentel, he jumped on the oppor­tu­nity. “He needed someone to help pro­gram the idea he had, which has to send a boat across the Atlantic,” explained Pimentel. “Right away, I was very inter­ested in doing it.”

Pimentel, a fourth-year com­puter sci­ence major, was tasked with coding the 13-foot long autonomous robotic boat, nick­named Scout, to follow a spe­cific set of latitude-longitude points. The oppor­tu­nity to code during co-op place­ments for PayPal and the mobile com­pany Run­K­eeper gave Pimentel the expe­ri­ence nec­es­sary to take on such a lofty task. The boat is depending entirely on these pre-programmed com­mands as well as infor­ma­tion about its envi­ron­ment col­lected through sen­sors to nav­i­gate the Atlantic.

After some trial and error, Scout was suc­cess­fully launched at 1 a.m. on Aug. 24 from Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, R.I., with a crowd of spec­ta­tors and project sup­porters in attendance.

“We had a couple of ini­tial launches fail due to dif­ferent rea­sons, but now this trip is going better than I expected,” Pimentel said.

The team’s other six mem­bers were respon­sible for cre­ating the web appli­ca­tion used to track the boat, pro­gram­ming com­mu­ni­ca­tions soft­ware, form con­struc­tion, and com­po­nent fab­ri­ca­tion, among other aspects. The boat’s bat­tery is pow­ered by solar panels, sim­ilar to how a motor­cycle bat­tery oper­ates. Since Scout only moves as a modest one mile per hour, on average, Pimentel and his team antic­i­pate the trip will take another six to 12 weeks.

“We would like to prove that this is pos­sible, and some­thing that can be used in a research set­ting,” he said. “The ability to send a boat out to a cer­tain point in the ocean to col­lect data, without needing to send a team, would be both cost and time effective.”

Out­side of the poten­tial research impli­ca­tions of a suc­cessful trip, the team has already believed to have beaten the world record for the far­thest dis­tance trav­eled by an autonomous boat. The pre­vious record for the length of time spent on the water by an autonomous boat attempting a transat­lantic trip was set in 2010 by a vessel that trav­eled only 61 miles off the coast of Ire­land. Scout has already passed this pre­vious marker by nearly 30-fold.

“This has been a really exciting project to be a part of,” Pimentel said. “We’ve proven that it’s pos­sible, and if we can, we’re going to do it again.”

Written by Jordana Torres


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This article was originally posted on Northeastern News. Read it here.