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SolarSurfer

A robotic solar-powered surfboard that will travel from LA to Hawaii! It's Arduino-powered, satellite connected, and collects ocean data.

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This project was created on 06/29/2014 and last updated 19 days ago.

Description
The SolarSurfer is a robotic solar-powered surfboard that will autonomously travel from LA to Hawaii. We’ve been thinking about this project since September 2013 and started working on it in June 2014. It will be launched on its three month journey later this year.

The SolarSurfer is built onto an 8 foot surfboard. A 120 W solar panel and lead acid battery power the electronics and the BlueRobotics thrusters. The surfer is guided by a 3D Robotics APM2.6 with a uBlox GPS. A RockBLOCK satellite radio from Rock Seven let’s us communicate back and forth with the SolarSurfer to monitor its position, status, and update its course. Temperature and pH sensors collect useful ocean data along the way.

The ocean is a harsh place - corrosive saltwater, intense sunlight, constant motion, and life everywhere. There's lots of challenges to overcome and a lot of potential for awesomeness.

Stay tuned!
Details

Inspiration:

The SolarSurfer project started because we were looking for something cool to do. Being surfers and engineers, the project was a perfect fit. 

When we first started, we had no trouble finding the right microcontroller, sensors, GPS, even a SATCOM link, but we couldn’t find a good thruster. Everything we could find was very expensive or would corrode during the long trip. That launched us on a quest to design an affordable, high-performing thruster, which we did. You can check it out at the BlueRobotics website. The SolarSurfer will showcase the thruster’s performance and endurance.

Open-source-ness:

The project is open-source and we'd love your input and contribution! The software is available on our Github page and licensed under the GPL license. We leverage a lot of inspiration from other open source projects like ArduPlane and ArduCopter.

Wherever possible, we used open-source hardware. The primary computer is an APM2.6 autopilot from 3D Robotics, which is open source. There are two custom circuit boards on the surfer: a BLDC motor monitor that we custom designed to measure thruster RPM, current, and voltage, and a Power Monitor that measures power from solar panel to battery, battery to load. Both boards are open-source and also available on Github.

The mechanical design of the SolarSurfer is also open-source. The design is documented through the drawings, photos, and component lists on this page.

The thrusters, although not open-source, are well-documented and CAD models are available for anyone who is interested. Check them out on BlueRobotics' website.

Connectedness:

The SolarSurfer is a connected device. Even though it will be out in the open ocean for months at a time, it keeps constant contact with the internet. A RockBlock Iridium satellite radio sends messages every 5-30 minutes. The messages are received by our web server and stored in a database. We've built an awesome web app to visualize the SolarSurfer's trip in real-time.

The online interface is built around the SolarSurferAPI, which stores raw data and makes it available to anyone in JSON format. The API is well documented on our Github page if you want to check it out!

The SolarSurfer's connection to the internet is absolutely critical to its functionality. The SolarSurfer has a number of sensors that are constantly collecting data and sending it back to shore. With multiple SolarSurfers, a lot of interesting data could be collected and accessed via the web. It could be used for weather predictions, oceanographic data, etc.

In addition to send data back to shore, we have the ability to send messages to the SolarSurfer while it is in the middle of the ocean. That means we can update its waypoint path and change other settings remotely!

The online interface (which will be public in the near future) shows a live map view of the current trip. There are also tabs with data plots, raw data, commanding (which is not publicly accessible), and simulations. We plan to expand on the interface to show more data in the cleanest format possible.

Why is it cool?

Glad you asked. We think this is a really cool project for a whole bunch of reasons:

  • Ocean crossing, data gathering, autonomous robot!? That's awesome.
  • Multidisciplinary. Like any robot project, this one required mechanical, electrical, and software skills to build.
  • It has the potential to do incredible things in the future:
    • Collect ocean data that is not measurable with satellites like pH, subsurface temperatures, currents at depth, wave height, wave period, air temperature, air pressure, etc.
    • Collect biological data such as marine mammal sounds, population movements, etc.
    • Collect ocean data at a massive scale with many vessels deployed simultaneously

It could do all this at a fraction of the cost of manned vessels.

Innovation:

We're not the first to do this by any means. People have been sending autonomous vehicles into the ocean for years. Several have made it all the way across the ocean. We think the innovation...

Read more »

Components
  • 1 × 8 Foot Surfboard Foam currently, upgrading later.
  • 2 × BlueRobotics T100 Thrusters For propulsion and steering.
  • 2 × BlueRobotics Basic ESCs For thruster control
  • 1 × 3D Robotics APM2.6 The brains.
  • 1 × 3D Robotics uBlox GPS & Compass For position.
  • 1 × 3D Robotics Power Module For current and voltage sensing.
  • 1 × Rock Seven RockBLOCK Satellite Radio For communication.
  • 1 × 120 W SunPower Solar Panel For energy.
  • 1 × Morningstar Solar Charge Controller For power regulation.
  • 1 × 12V, 18Ah Sealed Lead Acid Battery Enough power to keep the electronics running all night and on a cloudy day.

See all components

Project logs
  • Monterey Mission Simulation

    20 days ago • 0 comments

    We've created a mission simulator to better estimate SolarSurfer performance on the way to Monterey. We are using data from our last test in Marina del Rey to inform the simulation. The SolarSurfer's peak performance thus far has been 0.8 m/s with the solar panel providing 76W. Our avionics consume 4W, so 36W was going to each thruster at that point. The simulation also accounts for a 0.05 m/s ocean current going in a Southwest direction.

    With all of these assumptions, our simulator says that the SolarSurfer will take 30 days to get to Monterey Bay. We feel that this is probably pretty accurate and we will be update the simulation as we get better performance data during the first few days of the trip. Check out the simulation path (in red) compared to our intended path (in black.) The graph below also shows the thruster power consumption, absolute velocity, and total distance traveled for the first five days.

    In addition to this nominal scenario, we performed sensitivity analysis on a few key variables. Below are graphs showing the number of days required to reach Monterey Bay with varying thruster power settings and with varying the assumed ocean current velocity. On the thruster power graph, it is worth noting that while the thrusters are capable of utilizing 280W together, our current solar panel has only been providing 76W at our current location at this time of year.

    As always, our code is available on github. We are excited to launch and even more excited to share the adventure with you. We'll be releasing our public page with live data tracking Tuesday morning a few hours before we launch the SolarSurfer. As always, stay tuned.

  • Ocean Currents to Monterey

    22 days ago • 0 comments

    In preparation for the SolarSurfer's trip from LA to Monterey (on October 14th), we've been looking into the expected surface currents along the way. This is particularly important since the SolarSurfer drifts at night and is at the will of the current. Fortunately, according to NOAA's OSCAR database, the currents will be minimal. The are mostly offshore at a speed of about 0.05 m/s, which is much slower than the SolarSurfer travels under power.

    Here's a plot of the region between LA and Monterey:

    And here's a zoomed out plot showing the entire west coast.

    Stay tuned for the launch!

  • Plans for Ocean Test #4: LA to Monterey

    a month ago • 1 comment

    Our next test is going to be a big one: we're going to send the SolarSurfer from Los Angeles to Monterey, CA. The total distance will be around 300 miles and will take 2-3 weeks to complete. We'll detail the whole thing here from launch to recovery, and we want to share our plans right now.

    We'll launch in early October from the Los Angeles area (most likely Malibu) around October 14th. The SolarSurfer will travel south of the Channel Islands and then out to sea approximately 80-100 miles from shore to minimize the risk of getting near other boat traffic.

    The SolarSurfer will then travel parallel to the coast before heading back towards the coast. It will return to shore in Monterey, where we will meet it. If successful, it will fully demonstrate the capabilities of the idea, the platform, and the interface. The whole trip should take about 2-3 weeks and hopefully we'll be able to retrieve it before the final Hackaday judging!

    Here's the proposed path:

    Stay tuned for more details about the launch!

View all 12 project logs

Discussions

lami4ka wrote a month ago null point

Also do you think its possible to put an underwater camera? It would be sweet to record any wildlife it may encounter!

Are you sure? [yes] / [no]

Rusty Jehangir wrote a month ago null point

We would love to do this but there's a few challenges:
- First, keeping a lens clean underwater for months would be difficult. I think it would get covered in algae.
- Second, if you want to send the pictures back through the satellite link, it takes a lot of bandwidth and would be expensive. They could be stored on an SD card and viewed later though!

Hopefully we can add a camera underwater in the future.

Are you sure? [yes] / [no]

lami4ka wrote a month ago null point

This is a sweet idea! One question - what happens if the waves flip it over?

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Rusty Jehangir wrote a month ago null point

Hey Iami4ka - There's a keel on the bottom with the thrusters and a big weight that's about 8 lb. If it flips over, that weight sticks straight up in the air and pulls the board back upright.

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David Cook wrote 2 months ago null point

Great project! Two questions:

1. At full speed, how long would it take to go from Los Angeles to Hawaii?

2. Based on the night drift, it looks like you are fighting ocean currents. Would it be better to go from Hawaii to Los Angeles?

David

Are you sure? [yes] / [no]

Rusty Jehangir wrote 2 months ago null point

Hi David, thanks!

1. Average speed during sunlight hours will be about 2 knots. Assuming roughly 12 hours of sunlight, we'll go 24 miles a day and it will take 3-4 months. Since winter is coming it will likely end up being a little longer.

2. We did some research and found OSCAR, NOAA's database for ocean surface currents. If you look at the ocean between LA and Hawaii, the currents are usually pointing towards Hawaii (at about 0.1 m/s). The Santa Monica bay where we tested was much different and unpredictable.

Rusty

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Adam Fabio wrote 4 months ago null point

Great project Rusty! Thanks for submitting SolarSurfer to The Hackaday Prize! A trip from LA to Hawaii is a HUGE undertaking - and it looks like you're off to a great start! I'd love to see some video of those first R/C tests. Suggestion - if you have the resources, look into adding a salinity sensor (Conductivity). I spent some time working in the marine electronics shop back in college. From what i learned there, marine biologists would love that data!

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Rusty Jehangir wrote 4 months ago null point

Hey Thomas, glad you like it.

The surfboard has a weighted keel underneath. It's made of steel and has a weight at the bottom where the thrusters are mounted. The current board is a little too big and stable when upside down but we're moving to a smaller, thinner board.

In terms of collisions, we'll be able to update the course and waypoints at any time so that we can divert if necessary. I imagine that the sheer size of the ocean will make that unlikely.

- Rusty

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Thomas wrote 4 months ago null point

How is the legal situation for a project like that?
I have no idea :D

Are you sure? [yes] / [no]

Rusty Jehangir wrote 4 months ago null point

Hey Thomas, I'm no expert on the legal situation. There's some info related to autonomous boats here:

http://www.microtransat.org/faq.php

The MicroTransat Challenge is an autonomous transatlantic sailing competition. This question is particularly relevant:

"Q: Do the boats have to include any kind of autonomous collision-avoidance system to prevent collision with other floating objects?
A: No you don't have to. The International Rules for Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLGREGs) define a vessel as carrying passengers or cargo, it is our understanding that this doesn't class an autonomous boat as a vessel and therefore exempts it from these rules. There is no current legal status for autonomous boats, from what we can tell in speaking to the IMO and both the UK and French coastguards it would be classed as a buoy not a vessel."

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Thomas wrote 4 months ago null point

Hi! Very nice project.
How you make sure it does not turn over?
I could see that you have some kind of arm for mounting the thrusters. Is it stiff?

How you want to avoid collision with ships or buoj? Tracking ships and update course if there could be a collision?

Looking forward to see how it goes!

Are you sure? [yes] / [no]

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