Importance of Autonomous Speedboats and Related Work

A project log for Low-Cost, Waterjet-Powered Robotic Speedboats

This project focuses on the development of open-source, low-cost, waterjet-powered robotic speedboats for education and research

New DexterityNew Dexterity 10/11/2021 at 13:130 Comments

With the majority of the world consisting of waterways and open ocean it is important that they are well researched, monitored, and protected. Several companies and research groups have focused on the development of unmanned marine vehicles that rely on classic or renewable energy sources (e.g., wind powered) and that can monitor the oceans autonomously. This has allowed, among others, tracking of sea life and assessing the impacts of climate change. In New Zealand and the Pacific Ocean in general, autonomous boats are becoming a key part of maritime units that monitor unmarked vessels and ensure marine laws are upheld. These boats can operate 24/7 and can be placed in dangerous situations without endangering human lives. Rivers throughout New Zealand have also been degrading in water quality due to farmland runoff and rubbish dumping. The NZ Police and Department of Conservation have attempted to enforce regulations but there are too many waterways for them to look over and monitor. Therefore, having autonomous boats that can independently monitor these rivers is of paramount importance. 

Another potential application of autonomous boats and speedboats is searching for survivors and providing life saving vests or other inflating devices to people stranded out at sea due to capsized or damaged vessels. Autonomous speed boats will be able to reach the survivors faster as they can be  docked at solar powered buoys or lighthouses and can be deployed as soon as a call is received. For such applications to be successfully demonstrated more research needs to be done into such autonomous platforms. When developing autonomous systems, consideration for the system to be safe to operate and to not damage its environment or harm any bystanders is crucial. Therefore in autonomous boats it is common to find the use of various sails for propulsion such as [1], [2]. The safety benefits of these solutions are quickly outweighed by significant disadvantages, such as the fact that   their control is relying on external, environmental  conditions. An alternative solution that is safe, yet allows for total control, is a waterjet powered propulsion system that protects the impeller in an appropriate housing, reducing any chance of entanglement. This has been explored by [3] and other commercially available solutions. 

An important question is how can we speed up innovation in the field of autonomous boats? A solution that has proven to work in other fields is through competitions. Humans have an innate desire to compare themselves to one another, making competitions an effective tool for encouraging students to participate in furthering research and development of systems. Competitions have been traced through all cultures which proves their effectiveness and importance in education  [4]. Data presented in [5] has shown that students who took a test before and after participating in RoboFest (an autonomous robotics contest) ended up with higher scores in a STEM assessment afterwards. 

Regarding boat competitions, a strategy used by the RobotX competition is that all teams are required to use a platform that is  supplied by the organisers for the competition. This ensures that all contestants will have consistent hardware and will only be limited by their sensing and perception (software) capabilities. The supplied monohull boat platform is roughly 5 m long and 2.5 m wide which requires a boat trailer to move it around and take it to the testing site [6]. Moreover, the cost of additional components is well over $5,000 USD. RoboBoat is a similar autonomous boat competition that has taken a more open approach as teams must propose solutions that respect the imposed  length, weight and power constraints [7]. These custom built vessels are still expensive, costing at least $3,000 USD to build a competitive platform. The only low-cost platform that could be used for such competitions, is the  micro Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) platform that was proposed in [8]. This platform has been designed to operate in indoor laboratory environments. It is built using 3D printed and off-the-shelf electronic components, it is very small (23 cm long), inexpensive (costs 320 USD per unit for 10 vessels), and an excellent platform for algorithm validation in an indoor environment. 

Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, in the field of autonomous boats there is no open-source platform with a cost <1,000 USD that can offer multiple engineering challenges related to mechanical design, autonomy, perception, and control like the Mushr platform does in the field of car racing platforms [9].  

This project focuses on the development of open-source, low-cost, waterjet-powered robotic  speed boat platforms for both education and research.


[1] J. C. Alves and N. A. Cruz, “Fast - an autonomous sailing platform for oceanographic missions,” in OCEANS 2008. IEEE, 2008, pp. 1–7.

[2] R. Stelzer and K. Jafarmadar, “The robotic sailing boat ASV roboatasa maritime research platform,” in Proceedings of 22nd international HISWA symposium, 2012.

[3] Q.  Xiaowei, R.  Guang, Y.  Jin, and Z.  Aiping, “The simulation for autonomous navigation of water-jet-propelled unmanned surface vehicle,” in2011 Third International Conference on Measuring Technology and Mechatronics Automation, vol. 3. IEEE, 2011, pp. 945–948.

[4] T.  Verhoeff, “The role of competitions in education, “Future world: Educating for the 21st century, pp. 1–10, 1997.

[5] C.  C.  Chung, C.  Cartwright, and M.  Cole, “Assessing the impact of an autonomous robotics competition for stem education, “Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, vol. 15, no. 2, 2014.

[6] J. Park, M. Kang, T. Kim, S. Kwon, J. Han, J. Wang, S. Yoon, B. Yoo, S. Hong, Y. Shim, J. Park, and J. Kim, “Development of an Unmanned Surface  Vehicle  System  for  the  2014  Maritime  RobotX  Challenge, ”Journal of Field Robotics, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 644–665, 2017.

[7] C.  August and D.  Beach, “Rules and Task Descriptions RoboBoat2020 Rules and Task Descriptions,” pp. 1–24, 2020.

[8] C. Gregory and A. Vardy, “microUSV: A low-cost platform for indoor marine swarm robotics research,” HardwareX, vol. 7, p. e00105, 2020.

[9] S.  S.  Srinivasa, P.  Lancaster, J.  Michalove, M.  Schmittle, C.  Sum-mers, M.  Rockett, J.  R.  Smith, S.  Choudhury, C.  Mavrogiannis, and F. Sadeghi, “Mushr: A low-cost, open-source robotic race car for education and research,” arXiv preprint arXiv:1908.08031, 2019.