Published: 09.04.09
Avalon focus project

All hands off deck!

Mechanical engineering students from ETH Zurich have developed an unmanned sailing boat in a focus project that can reach any given destination completely autonomously. The Avalon robot sailing boat is due to set sail from Ireland in the fall and head for the Caribbean.

Martina Maerki
The boat’s ready – which way to the sea? The team “Students Sail Autonomously” (SSA) presents Avalon, the robot sailing boat. (Photo: SSA/ETH Zurich)
The boat’s ready – which way to the sea? The team “Students Sail Autonomously” (SSA) presents Avalon, the robot sailing boat. (Photo: SSA/ETH Zurich) (large view)

The Caribbean is still a long way off. But at least Avalon has already had a taste of the water on Lake Zurich. Admittedly, the first run ended on a sandbank, but that – and everyone agrees – can happen to any sailor. And Avalon has a good excuse: the software program that really enables it to sail by itself is still very much in its infancy. However, the “Students Sail Autonomously” team (SSA) is confident that they can overcome the teething problems. Now they are just happy that the boat is ready and in the water. After all, Avalon is not just a normal boat that has been souped up, no; Avalon has been an in-house development from A to Z, tailored to suit all the conditions an unmanned boat will be exposed to on the open seas. “We believe that this will give us a crucial advantage over many of the other contenders in the International Microtransat Challenge,” explains Hendrik Erckens, who heads the project together with Gion-Andri Büsser.

Atlantic crossing the biggest challenge

In the fall, the students are looking to enter Avalon in the International Microtransat Challenge 2009, where it is supposed to sail from the west coast of Ireland to the Caribbean entirely under its own steam. Nearly all of them have sailing experience, but none of them has been to the Caribbean. That’s why they have been talking to sailors who know the region from stem to stern about their experiences. After all, as yet no robot sailing boat has successfully crossed the Atlantic. The International Microtransat Challenge 2009 is therefore a chance to really make some waves. “We are in with a real shot of setting a world record”, says Gion-Andri Büsser. “That’s a real incentive.”

The mechanical engineering students have already proven how motivated they are: they have been working meticulously on their boat since last September. The eight ETH Zurich students designed Avalon using state-of-the-art techniques and, to a great extent, built it themselves during the winter. The only requirement stipulated by the Challenge organizers was the length of the boat, which should not exceed 4 meters. The students were pretty much given a free hand in the rest: the choice of material, the shape of the hull and keel, right down to the shape, mounting and helm of the mast and sail – everything was reassessed and optimized for an unmanned robot sailing boat. At the same time, the students determined which individual components they would use for the necessary electronic sensors and subsystems, and developed the controlling circuit, solar power supply, batteries and fuel cells. Now all that remains is for the corresponding computer programs to be completed and tested.

Tests on domestic lakes and in Portugal

The first test runs are currently being conducted on Lake Zurich. Avalon is then to be optimized further under tougher conditions on Lake Lucerne in May. It won’t get to test its sea legs until the summer, however, when it is due to take part in the World Robotic Sailing Championship in Portugal. But that’s all plain sailing compared to the challenge that awaits it in the fall. The race to the Caribbean will take Avalon 7000 kilometers across the Atlantic. The SSA students then have a particularly hard time in store for them. For weeks, they will only be able to watch Avalon on the computer, without being able to intervene. The route it takes and how it steers clear of calm areas and weathers storms will all be decided by Avalon itself.

The organizers of the Microtransat Challenge expect that it will take somewhere between two to three months for the boats to reach the tropical waters on the Atlantic crossing and that they will be subjected to enormous strain: an acid test for Avalon itself, and maybe even more so for the nerves of its creators and various sponsors, without whom the project would never have left port. Avalon is a prime example of what persuasive ETH Zurich students and dedicated industrial partners can achieve together: the project budget will be covered almost entirely by industrial sponsors.