Self-powered and self-controlled vehicles have many advantages over human-controlled vehicles. They can be sent into areas that are too dangerous or expensive for humans to venture, also because there is no need to carry a human controller the vehicle can be miniaturised. Developing control systems for such vehicles is a hard problem, failure can lead to loss of the vehicle and the problem of powering autonomous vehicles for long periods of time is not trivial. Yachts offer some strong advantages over other vehicles such as arial vehicles as they are in a naturally stable state. In case of failure they remain in place. Furthermore their control systems are straight-forward - there are only three controls - the rudder, the jib and the main sail. Their motion is powered solely by the wind and do not have heavy power requirements.
Plotting a course autonomously is an interesting research problem - given constant wind speed the calculation of course is a matter of solving vector mathematical equations. In operation on the water weather conditions make for a more difficult proposition. Constantly changing wind speed and direction, water currents, and wave motions combine to perturb the equation formulae. Advanced artificial intelligence algorithms need to be applied to the problem to correct the sail and rudder positions to take into account of these perturbations. In addition, substantial work will be required to build the necessary sensor and control infrastructure in order for a control loop to function.
The ultimate goal of this project will be the development of an autonomous control system for a miniature yacht that will be capable of taking a set of initial waypoints from the controller and executing them autonomously. The test environment will be the UCD lake. This project will involve significant collaboration with final year project students in the school of Engineering, including sharing of yacht resources.