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SailBots an added attraction at club’s open house

For the last few years, UW robotic efforts have been part of Conestoga Sailing Club’s event out at Conestogo Lake


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Looking to kick off this summer with a splash? The Conestoga Sailing Club is having its annual open house on May 27 at Conestogo Lake. For the first time this year, they have paired with University of Waterloo’s SAILBot team, a student-led organization that builds and operates autonomous sailboats.

“We’re sharing expertise because we’re all sailors and they’re more engineers,” said Jan d’Ailly, commodore of the Conestoga Sailing Club. “They’re from the University of Waterloo, and they bring autonomous sailboats. So applying all of the high-tech engineering standards so that a boat can actually find a mark where to go to, and run a race all completely on its own. There’s all kinds of high technology on this boat. The ultimate test is to find the mark, or buoy, in the water and it’s got to go around it, and then it’s got to come back. They also have where it’s remote-controlled, partially controlled, there are different levels of autonomy.”

The SAILBot team was created in 2016. Its members build boats that are capable of competing in a race without any remote control, entirely on its own. Every year, they participate in the International Robotic Sailing Regatta with the goal of winning first-place in the competition. This year, it is taking place in Worcester, Massachusetts in June.

Autonomous sailing is very much a niche market, with only two other Canadian teams participating in the competition.

“This is very unique,” said Seamus Johnson,  a robotic software developer and member of the SAILBot team. “In 2017 there was a team from Wales, a team from Brazil, three teams from Canada. So, us, Queen’s University and Memorial University in Newfoundland. And the rest were from different places in the States. It’s very much a mix.”

Because it is such a unique market, the general public is not aware of the many benefits that marine robotics can provide.

“I think autonomous sailing is a very underrated thing,” explained Johnson. “Everyone is super interested in autonomous drones, and autonomous cars, because they actually see those. Something that’s not considered in the robotics community is how vital marine robotics could be. You look at shipping craters that consume a ton of gas when you can fill up a sailboat with as many items. Wind powers a sailboat. I don’t need an engine with a huge prop attached. I’m just purely using the wind. Even if I throw a couple of solar panels on my boat, it powers itself, and it’s entirely environmentally friendly. There’s a lot to be said for the field of marine robotics and the possibilities that sailing holds for the shipping industry and ocean research, so sampling and stuff like that. But it’s not as hyped up as say, drones that film soccer games.”

The Conestoga Sailing Club and SAILBot have formed a partnership that benefits both parties.

“They give us a reduced price on membership,” said Johnson. “In return, we put their logo on our sail and advertise them as one of our sponsors. We get to go there and test during the summer.”

The Conestoga Sailing Club was founded in 1961. The open house is a tradition the club has hosted for decades. The average turnout is around 30-40 people, depending on the weather. One of their goals is to show prospective members what the sailing club is like, according to d’Ailly.

“A lot of club members will take people out sailing on the water for 20, 30 minutes, for whoever wants to do that,” added d’Ailly. Other activities include swimming in the water, learning about the club and meeting members of the UWSailBot team to see how an autonomous sailboat works. Hamburgers, sausages, chips, cookies and other refreshments will also be provided.

“We had a club opening two weeks ago, we get the boats out of the shed and clean everything up,” said d’Ailly. “People have been sailing already. We had our first club race on Wednesday.  But the open house is the real kickoff of the sailing season. “If you’re looking for a cottage atmosphere that’s close by, and you want to enjoy the water, that’s what we’re about,” said d’Ailly. “Come out and enjoy the sun!”

The event runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For further information on either group, visit www.kwsailing.org or www.uwsailboat.com.

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