SOUTHAMPTON, England (LOG News Service) — All summer, the small boat drifted steadily eastward across the churning North Atlantic until it neared the Irish coast, where it made history by becoming the first unmanned sailboat to cross the Atlantic.
SB Met, built by Norwegian company Offshore Sensing AS, reached the finish line of the Microtransat Challenge for robotic boats on Aug. 26, two and a half months after setting off from Newfoundland, according to preliminary data.
It’s a milestone that shows the technology for unmanned boats is robust enough to carry out extended missions that can dramatically cut costs for ocean research, border security, and surveillance in rough or remote waters. They’re part of wider efforts to develop autonomous marine vessels such as robotic ferries and cargo and container ships that could be operating by the end of the decade, outpacing attempts to commercialize self-driving cars.
“We’ve proved that it’s possible to do,” said David Peddie, CEO of Offshore Sensing, which created the oceangoing drones, known as Sailbuoys.
“The North Atlantic is one of the toughest areas to cross” and completing the challenge “really proves that it’s a long endurance vehicle for pretty much any condition the sea can throw at you,” he added.
Under the Microtransat’s rules, boats up to 7.9 feet long can sail between Europe and the Caribbean or North America and Ireland. They must regularly transmit location data.
The Sailbuoy competed in the “unmanned” class, which allows operators to change its course along the way. There’s a separate “autonomous” class that prohibits any such communication.
More than 20 previous attempts by various teams to complete the Microtransat since it began in 2010 have ended in failure, with robot boats caught in fishing nets, retrieved by ships, or lost, according to the race website. Peddie said his biggest fear was that a passing boat would pick up the 130-pound vessel as it neared the finish.
Until Sailbuoy’s achievement, the only unmanned watercraft to cross the Atlantic previously was a battery-powered underwater glider in 2009.