Seattle Hackerbot Setting Sail Solo
A Hacker's Approach

By Danielle Roof

Seattle Hackerbot Setting Sail Solo Pierce Nichols and his friends at the Seattle Hackerbot want to sail around the world without ever leaving land. They want to design the first boat to autonomously circumnavigate the globe. The team all has extensive engineering backgrounds and come together in the hacker space during their free nights and weekends to pursue projects that interest and excite them. This project clearly fit the bill.

The team is still actively testing the propulsion, controls, sensors and communications as well as a host of nautical considerations. Ultimately the team hopes that the final design will be 20 or 25 feet in length, but for now they are using the cheapest kayak they could find on Craigslist.

The testing has focused on isolating different aspects and incrementally adding more complexity in an effort to get to a final design. They began this process by testing systems and sensors but are a long way from open ocean tests. From there they focused on a 17-foot version to test propulsion. The team has an aggressive testing plan having little doubt that the open sea will present a hostile environment for this project.

The Hackerboat system is solar-electric that employs a Wi-Fi communications connection. The "brains" of the system are an Arduino and a Beaglebone system that work in tandem to control most of the boat's operations. The steering is taken care of by a servo motor, and the boat has stereoscopic vision through a set of waterproof webcams. The servo motor is more exposed in the current design than it would be in a full-size version so that the team can access it more easily during testing. The risk of it being damaged is lower at this stage, but shielding, protection and waterproofing become more critical as they get closer to launch. A safety horn ensures that despite the boat's lack of human passengers there will hopefully not be any unfortunate crashes.

Seattle Hackerbot Setting Sail Solo The design also includes a unique type of sail called a self-tending wing sail. The sails are designed to spin freely, with the angle of attack controlled by the tail. The sails look nothing like the triangular pieces of canvas most of us associate with boats, but rather more like something from an airplane. The design is based on research done by the Amateur Yacht Research Society about 30 years ago.

For Pierce, researching the various aspects of the design is one of the highlights of the process. He enjoys combining different types of research from very different groups to make something new that brings together a variety of technologies from a wide range of sources.

The biggest challenge in this design process has been creating a durable enough boat to withstand the ocean. The environment in the ocean is one of the least forgiving in the world; many autonomous crafts make it a few hundred miles and then simply disappear. The Beaglebone and Arduino working in tandem is a part of this durability – they are able to reboot each other in case of a failure. Future versions of the boat will probably include an additional hardware "watchdog" whose sole purpose is to ensure that these two components remain functional, as they are crucial to the craft's success. Testing Hackerboat's durability is also a challenge, as it is very difficult and expensive to run an extensive test. Any high-level test will cost a lot to run, and if the boat cannot withstand the test then Pierce would lose the hardware involved. This is one reason why he decided to create the smaller versions of the craft. Not only are they easier to work with, there is somewhat less of an investment in each prototype.

The current design of the boat is mechanically sound; the steering, propulsion, and power systems are all working well in the current test version. In addition to moving from a 17-foot to a 25-foot design, the Hackerboat team plans to enhance their software to make it more durable and fault tolerant.

The team would love your support. Visit their website to stay up to date on their efforts and if you could contribute a few dollars to the cause, they would appreciate it. For more information, see

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Danielle Roof is a senior at Tulane University originally from San Carlos, California. She is studying Political Economy and Education, and hopes to go into teaching. Her favorite things to do when she's not studying are dance, yoga, and traveling to new places.