When Anahita Laverack and Ciaran Dowds tested their robot boat for the first time off the coast of Wales, it was not smooth sailing. The 23-year-olds, both engineering graduates from Imperial College London, launched their autonomous craft – a 4ft, unmanned vessel – from a sailboat off the coast of Aberystwyth last July.
Although the seas were rough, the robot boat “performed beautifully”, says Dowds – but he did not.
“I’m not a sailor,” he says. “I was throwing up everywhere.”
Still, it was a key proof-of-concept moment for the couple’s project to change the way our oceans are monitored. At present, data about the world’s seas – their temperatures, currents, wave sizes, even their biodiversity – is primarily collected by attaching sensors to floating plastic buoys. It is both expensive – because scientists have to charter a boat – and unreliable, because the buoys drift off course.
“The way data is collected from the sea right now is ridiculously antiquated,” says Laverack. “You have scientists trying to understand massive issues like climate change or extreme weather with sparse random data that literally comes from balls of plastic that float about anywhere.”
So they decided to try to build a better idea – an autonomous boat that can head into the ocean to capture data without human intervention.
“Our vessels will provide a much clearer picture of what’s really going on,” says Laverack. The prototype can be programmed to stay in a certain location, theoretically making the information more accurate. If you can scale up the idea, so the pitch goes, a fleet of these craft could be sent out across the globe to monitor the ocean in real time, returning data that could be crucial for conservation and dealing with the climate emergency.
The idea came to Laverack – who, unlike Dowds, is a qualified sailor – while completing her master’s thesis. She wanted to compete in the Microtransat Challenge, a friendly competition to design and build an autonomous boat to sail across the Atlantic. Searching for accurate real-time ocean data to input into the system’s algorithms, she realised such data simply didn’t exist.
Laverack realised that if she fitted her own vessel with sensors, microphones and cameras, it could gather the information all these people wanted. So she began designing one.
“Then I started thinking of all the ways that data could be used,” she adds. “By scientists researching climate change, but also by shipping companies wanting to navigate the oceans more efficiently; by fishing firms prospecting sustainable grounds; by offshore windfarm developers looking for optimum locations. The list is endless.”
She teamed up with her boyfriend, Dowds, who was completing his own electrical engineering master’s, to register their company, Oshen, in April 2022. They bought a secondhand boat to live on, docked it in Caernarfon – “because it’s beautiful and close to the sea” – and began perfecting their device.
Since their first sea trial they have been granted £43,000 by the European Space Agency and another £75,000 by the government’s Innovate UK agency, with a further £30,000 generated from private investors.
They have also hired one member of staff – an old university friend – and tested the craft on a lake – Llyn Padarn in Snowdonia. “We follow it about in a kayak,” says Dowds.
They have faced challenges, however. “Building a small autonomous boat is excruciatingly difficult,” Laverack admits. No team has ever completed the autonomous category of the Microtransat Challenge – even the US Naval Academy hasn’t managed it, she says. The pair hope to succeed where others have failed by adapting new navigational concepts developed for small drones, and by creating algorithms to better respond to changing currents and wind directions at sea.
Testing is up and down. “Every time we test it on the water, it can be one step forward and two steps back,” says Laverack. “We’ve had eight different kinds of sails … [and] the internal mechanisms constantly need changing as different issues become clear.”
Even powering the boat is fiendishly complex. It runs off solar power but the small hull can only hold a few panels. “So we are trying to design sensor and navigational systems that need very little power,” says Dowds. “And we’re doing that pretty much from scratch.”
At the moment, the microcraft doesn’t look much: a slightly battered fibreglass body with a rough, rigid sail. Duct tape appears to be holding some parts together. When the thing is put on the water, it looks like you could blow it off course yourself. But when Dowds programmes in a short voyage, it defies the buffeting wind and sails more or less to where it should. And then it comes back.
The biggest test mission yet happens in July, when the boat will brave the Irish Sea to gather weather statistics and monitor mammal activity.
Should it succeed, their next step is to build an initial fleet of 10 craft with their relatively modest funding, though they are also in talks with a handful of companies – including a shipping-route optimisation service and an offshore-surveying firm – about selling them the data the vessels collect.
The scale of the task ahead doesn’t daunt them. “The oceans are so important to our future,” says Dowds. “The idea we might be able to help understand it a little more is just exciting beyond words.”