The Drone That Will Sail Itself Around the World

The Saildrone "Honey Badger". (Credit: Corey Arnold)

(Click to enlarge) The Saildrone “Honey Badger”. (Credit: Corey Arnold)

An Orange Pixel flickers on the horizon, sandwiched between the inky azure of the mid-Pacific and the robin’s-egg pale of the Hawaiian sky.

(From Wired / by Adam Fisher) – Richard Jenkins is the first to see it—a sailing robot, which has been blowing our way for a month. We’re in a small motorboat 7 miles out at sea, just north of Oahu’s windward shore. Dylan Owens gets the next good glimpse. “I see the wing,” he exclaims, “and the tail!”

Jenkins and Owens are the engineering duo behind Saildrone, which in the words of their website is “a wind-powered autonomous surface vehicle.” On October 1, the 19-foot craft was set loose in the San Francisco Bay with a simple command lodged in its electronic brain: Sail to Hawaii. For 2,248 nautical miles the boat did the rest. The path it chose happens to be identical to that of the annual Pacific Cup sailing race, and the fastest anyone has traversed this course is just over five days. The single-handed-sailing record is eight and a half days. As Jenkins and Owens look on, Saildrone is about to complete what might be called the first no-handed ocean sail: San Francisco to Hawaii in 34 days. It’s not quick, but then again there is no one aboard to complain.

The journey has included a storm with gale-force winds followed by two weeks of doldrums. During the tempest, Saildrone was reporting speeds of up to 16 miles per hour and angles as extreme as 75 degrees, meaning it was heeled over and surfing down the backside of breaking waves—waves with enough power to snap it in two had they caught the boat in the wrong position. The doldrums were equally worrisome: With no one aboard to scrub the bottom, algae, seaweed, and barnacles might have overtaken Saildrone, transforming it into just another piece of flotsam.

As the vessel sails into sight, I see that it’s a streamliner—a narrow hull stabilized by two outriggers, one on each side. Its “sail” is a sail in name only; in reality it’s a 20-foot-high, solid carbon-fiber wing. Extending from the back of this wing, halfway up the mast, is a tail—just like an airplane’s. (“That’s a little trick that I stole from the Wright brothers,” Jenkins says.) Above the waterline the boat is painted safety orange and emblazoned with the words OCEAN RESEARCH IN PROGRESS in all caps. The hull is black with bottom paint, and near the bow is the name in a fancy serif: Honey Badger.

The Honey Badger is more than a sailboat and more than a robot, although it’s both of those things. The Pacific crossing is really a test of a new type of sail that automatically keeps itself pointed into the wind, like a weather vane. Adjusting a little tab on the back of the tail—a task handled by the Honey Badger’s autopilot—is enough to maintain the correct course and to angle the wing so it creates forward thrust. There’s no need to employ ropes, winches, or even sailors. The mechanism is so simple it might really be best regarded as a plug-and-play power source. Like a windmill, it converts a ubiquitous natural resource into usable energy.

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Consortium for Ocean Leadership