In early June, a small solar-powered drone, the Solar Voyager, left Gloucester, Massachusetts. Its goal was to cross the Atlantic Ocean, becoming the world's first unmanned surface ship to do so. And the first solar-powered vessel in the world to cross any ocean.
It took engineers Isaac Penny and Christopher Sam Soon four years to build an 18-foot robotic kayak in the ordinary life of surgical robots. Although the Solar Voyager still has a long way to go to its goal of Lisbon, it can already be said that the project has been successful in many ways.
«We're kind of talking - look at what a small group of people can do when they're passionate about what they're doing," says Penny. - Christopher and I are not super geniuses. We're not even sailors. I grew up in Kansas!»
Despite this, the friends managed to build the boat from scratch, with only ready-made solar panels and some standard engine parts at their disposal. The boat is slow but stubbornly moving from one point of the route to another and, if all goes well, will reach Portugal in autumn.
Solar Voyager is not the first drone ever to cross the ocean. The pioneers were the Wave Gliders from Liquid Robotics. It's true they used the energy of waves, not the sun. Also, unlike the Solar Voyager, the Wave Gliders were developed in the depths of a large company with extensive experience in shipbuilding, and the technology used was patented.
«Only Liquid Robotics can build Wave Gliders," Penny laughs. - And what we did could be repeated by anyone. We don't even have a garage!»
In four years, the Solar Voyager has evolved from a plastic kayak into a custom-made, home-proven aluminium hull boat with a home-proven engine and electronics, a 280-watt solar panel and two anti-fouling propellers that deliver speeds up to 5 miles per hour.
The Solar Voyager enclosure is also protected from shells by a special coating. Under deck, it has two 2.4 kWh batteries that store energy for nighttime driving.
Inventors had to think of a million different things to make the boat liveable enough to spend four months in the ocean.
Thus, the Solar Voyager solar panels are separated: if one of them fails, the other will continue its work. The boat has two screws and two rudder pens for the same purpose: if one of the pair grows shells or gets tangled in something, the boat will move. To prevent collisions with other vessels, they made the boat visible to the radar and painted its hull, as well as paved a course away from popular sea routes.
Navigation of the Solar Voyager is the responsibility of the on-board computer, which follows pre-programmed GPS tags. Every 15 minutes it sends data about the boat's location to the Internet. The tracker is available on the project website. In addition to the coordinates, it also reports the speed of the Solar Voyager, the amount of solar energy generated, the battery charge level and the temperature overboard.
The boat has a GoPro camera, which inventors hope to capture at the end of the transatlantic transition.
The Solar Voyager is the only chance for the two friends, because unlike Liquid Robotics, they do not have the resources to build a fleet or maintain a boat somewhere halfway to Lisbon.
When the Solar Voyager reaches Lisbon, it will start slicing circles around the last GPS point of the route until the creators have a chance to come and pick it up. They are now looking for someone with a yacht from Lisbon who would be ready to help them with transporting the Solar Voyager.