A team of sixth form pupils from Epsom College recently received Royal Navy backing in their attempt to become the first group to sail an autonomous model boat across the Atlantic Ocean.
Ten boys and girls from the College boarded HMS Pursuer, an Archer-class P2000 patrol and training vessel, in Portsmouth before heading out to their chosen launch point off the south-west coast of England to release their boat, That’ll Do.
The Microtransat Challenge was originally launched in 2005 to stimulate the development of fully autonomous model sailing boats capable of crossing the Atlantic as part of a student-led STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) project.
Led by Jamie Styles, Epsom College’s Head of Chemistry, the Microtransat Challenge attempt has brought together students and staff from the Mathematics, Geography, Chemistry, Physics and Computing Departments, who have been working on the design of their boat since September 2015.
Students on board
In May this year, the Epsom team successfully launched a high altitude balloon to 35,000 metres in order to test a number of the boat’s components, including a USB datalogger which will be used to track the Atlantic crossing attempt. The self-designed and programmed device weighs just 100 grams and logs latitude, longitude and temperature data.
The boat itself uses a GPS module to calculate its position and determine a heading to the next waypoint using software the students have written themselves.
In recent tests the boat performed beyond all expectations and now has the ability to transmit its location every hour, from anywhere in the world, directly to its own Twitter feed via the Iridium satellite network. Meanwhile, the USB datalogger records its position every 30 minutes and, in the event that it is successful, will be used to verify the crossing.
To date there have been twelve unsuccessful Microtransat attempts, including one by the United States Naval Academy team whose 1.2m long boat, Aboat Time, managed to travel 408km in five days and 11 hours before being caught in a fishing net.
The Epsom College team is aware of the difficulty of the Challenge, given that a number of large scale, university-led projects have already tried and failed. They are confident, however, that Epsom has produced a boat with the potential to complete the mission.
‘Having the Royal Navy support us in this school engineering project will make a real difference,” says Jamie Styles. “One of the hardest challenges is getting the boat away from the shore and having a lift to the start line will undoubtedly increase our chances of success.’