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Did you know that autonomous sail boats are thriving?

Navigating through turbulent waters and unexplored oceanic waters requires geospatial technology. Autonomous sail boats are doing just that. Find out how!

Autonomous sail boats
Credit: SailDrone

Oceanic data has always been valued. However, for decades now, the only way to reach the difficult oceanic environments has been expensive. For the longest time, the only solution to gather location information and oceanic data to and from turbulent and hostile waters was to either launch a satellite into space, or to station a stationary buoy. Or if that was not enough, millions of dollars were spent to send a government research vehicle to gather this data. But not anymore!

The tides are changing! Autonomous sail boats are sailing through the expanse of research vessels and are offering the government, the private industry and the universities, accessible and real-time valuable data on the location of and about fish and wildlife populations, ocean temperatures and climate change.

What are Autonomous Sail Boats?

The idea of autonomous sail boats can simply be explained as a boat that is capable of piloting itself, designed specifically for adventurers who are more or less clueless about sailing and navigation but still want to enjoy the joys of sailing through the seas. However, of late, these boats are increasingly being used to gather location and oceanic data from ocean holes that were not reachable to sea researchers and wanderers. These boats include the Global Positioning Systems (GPS), make use of satellite imageries and sensors that help the boats navigate through the wide seas and undisclosed locations. The interesting aspect of these surface vehicles is, therefore, that they do not only meet the needs of navigation of the inexperienced sailors but also bring a revolutionary change in how data is collected and analysed. Let’s see how!

The Navocean Project
Autonomous sail boats
Image Credit: NavOcean

Started over a bottle of wine, the Navocean project was crafted to enable sailing sans active remote control or human input. In 2014, Nav3, a third generation vessel, with sensors was specifically designed for data collection as part of NOAA’s Northeast Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems. Understanding that the future of sailboats is not going to be limited to “just” sensors for data collection and foreseeing autonomous capability for sailboats in the future, Arutunian and Duncan, designed a built the fourth generation autonomous sail drone, the Nav2. The Nav2’s features were developed by the two innovators themselves. It has a custom built “brain” which consists of a computer, server, scientific and communications infrastructure. To navigate and sail by itself, these autonomous sail boats have a GPS receiver, an Airmar wind sensor, an electronic compass and a pitch-heading roll sensor. Relying heavily on algorithms developed on the basis of spatial data, the Nav2 is easily able to navigate by itself like in autopilot. Furthermore, an application was developed by the innovators such that the sail drone could be controlled from smart phones, or computers increasing operational flexibility.

What makes Nav2 an efficient autonomous sail boat is that it can patrol otherwise desolate and shallow waters to gather data of these areas as quickly as possible. The boat is, therefore, not only a ‘data user’ but also a ‘data producer’ at the same time. Using sensors, the boat can be used extensively to study the physical properties of ocean water, sea beds, water salinity, etc. “One of the potential use of these drones is that important data can be gathered from places that no one is getting to right now. ”  Stuart Lochner, Navocean team, said in an interview with Ccruising World. At present, the team plans to market their special autonomous vehicle to universities, scientists and research groups.


A 26 person startup, Saildrone is about to become the next big thing in the autonomous sail boat industry. The Saildrone boats are fitted with 42 meteorological and oceanographic research sensors while being guided by dual GPS system.  The customer base of the company includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security. The boats, if employed in huge numbers are expected to predict the world’s weather with far more precision than traditional satellites which would be in high demand by private companies. To reach the furthest corners of the world’s ocean, these unmanned vehicles will give researchers an expanse view and location of the yet untapped locations of the oceanic world. Carrying a comprehensive set of geospatial and scientific instruments in the operational unit, the Saildrone’s technology is comprehensive, and efficient.

How does the Saildrone navigate? But of course, GPS technology! Forming a core component of the autonomous sail boat is a dual Global Positioning System and GNSS technology. GPS provides sail drone the speed data and location and the navigation instruction reaches the autopilot system in the drone directly via satellites.

In 2014, the Saildrone completed 2100 nautical mile which is equivalent to 3,689 km trip from San Francisco to Honolulu in 34 days. The company, founded by Richard Jenkins got its start in 2012 with $2.5 million in grants from Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. Since then it has raised $14 million in September 2016 in a Series A round led by Social capital, with participation from the Capricorn investment group and Lux capital. Bilal Zuberi, a partner at Lux Capital, adds that Saildrone has the potential to be bigger than Google Maps and bigger than any space satellite program for spatial data.

The Future: The Argoknot
Autonomous sail boats
The Future of Autonomous Sail Boats

Argoknot is an in-works autonomous sail boat concept that can go up to 100 km/h. It is going to be built on the concept of navigational Artificial Intelligence (AI) program. The AI program in Argoknot is to be responsible for the sailing operations – also interacting with the owner on board and teaching them to sail! Fitted with cameras and sensors and a navigation system, the sail boat is going to be used to observe and transmit weather data, sea samples and record images and videos during its trips.

In conclusion, autonomous sail boats are going to have a far reaching impact on the oceanic world than any other technological innovation. Geospatial technology is going to complement the scientific technology associated with these sailboats helping them navigate and discover unidentified locations. Sensors will transform how oceanic and climatic data is collected. Like Zuberi emphasized in an interview with Inc., “We have seen this happen in space with micro satellites and low-cost rockets, on the street with internet-connected vehicles and soon self-driving cars, and in the sky with drones. Now it’s time for robots in the ocean.”

Also Read: Autonomous Cars are a passé. Let’s talk about Autonomous Trains!