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Student’s autonomous boat ‘Scouts’ the Atlantic

When a friend with an ambitious goal to send an autonomous boat from Rhode Island to Spain approached David Pimentel, he jumped on the opportunity. “He needed someone to help program the idea he had, which has to send a boat across the Atlantic,” explained Pimentel. “Right away, I was very interested in doing it.”

Pimentel, a fourth-year computer science major, was tasked with coding the 13-foot long autonomous robotic boat, nicknamed Scout, to follow a specific set of latitude-longitude points. The opportunity to code during co-op placements for PayPal and the mobile company RunKeeper gave Pimentel the experience necessary to take on such a lofty task. The boat is depending entirely on these pre-programmed commands as well as information about its environment collected through sensors to navigate the Atlantic.

After some trial and error, Scout was successfully launched at 1 a.m. on Aug. 24 from Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, R.I., with a crowd of spectators and project supporters in attendance.

“We had a couple of initial launches fail due to different reasons, but now this trip is going better than I expected,” Pimentel said.

The team’s other six members were responsible for creating the web application used to track the boat, programming communications software, form construction, and component fabrication, among other aspects. The boat’s battery is powered by solar panels, similar to how a motorcycle battery operates. Since Scout only moves as a modest one mile per hour, on average, Pimentel and his team anticipate the trip will take another six to 12 weeks.

“We would like to prove that this is possible, and something that can be used in a research setting,” he said. “The ability to send a boat out to a certain point in the ocean to collect data, without needing to send a team, would be both cost and time effective.”

Outside of the potential research implications of a successful trip, the team has already believed to have beaten the world record for the farthest distance traveled by an autonomous boat. The previous record for the length of time spent on the water by an autonomous boat attempting a transatlantic trip was set in 2010 by a vessel that traveled only 61 miles off the coast of Ireland. Scout has already passed this previous marker by nearly 30-fold.

“This has been a really exciting project to be a part of,” Pimentel said. “We’ve proven that it’s possible, and if we can, we’re going to do it again.”