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‘Sail-bots’ hit the seas

SEPT. 11 — A boat that can sail itself is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

This year, a competition was held from Sept. 2-6 in the Irish Sea off Aberystwyth, England where teams from Wales, Toulouse, Canada and Austria showed off their best “sail-bots,” 13-foot dinghies that are completely autonomous.

Dubbed Microtransat, the race was conceived by Yves Briere of the Ensica engineering institute in Toulouse, France and Mark Neal of AberystwythUniversity. And according to the Microtransat site, the plan is to have a race of sail-bots across the Atlantic set by late 2008.

The rules were simple: to create a dinghy no more than 13 feet long that can sail itself around various courses, using no power other than sun or wind. The boats must be energetically autonomous, carrying batteries or electricity-generating equipment, and must not weigh over 88 pounds.

According to an article in The Register, a British Web site devoted to gathering a smorgasbord of information, many of the boats participating found themselves contending with rough seas and technical snags, such as seagull droppings covering energy cells. However Neal remains undeterred that next year’s transatlantic race will be a success, with plans in the works for a sail-bot based on a Topper dinghy equipped with GPS, wind sensors and actuators for rudder and sails.

The Register states the ultimate goal of these “sail-bots” is to produce oceanographic survey platforms that could operate by themselves for up to six months.

— Elizabeth Ellis