By Bruce Burdett
Any day now, when the final few glitches are ironed out (there are always a few more of those), a tiny boat will putter away from Fogland toward the open Atlantic.
With nobody aboard and only the sun to power its electric motor and systems, the boat named Scout will hang a left somewhere out beyond Sakonnet Point and follow a programmed course east toward Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain, the place from which Columbus set forth on one of his voyages of exploration.
“It’s going to happen, this time we mean it,” said Dylan Rodriguez, in whose Tiverton garage Scout — the many versions of Scout — took shape and grew over the past three summers.
“This is our fifth hull in the three years since we started. The first was three feet and the latest has grown to 13 feet, We started out in the basement and moved into the garage,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We’ve set a lot of start dates that have come and gone — summers end and we head back to college, just run out of time.”
The notion of building a little unmanned boat that could motor across the ocean was born early one summer when Tiverton friends Rodriguez and Max Kramers pondered what next to build during vacation time from college. They’d built all sorts of toy boats and airplanes together over the years, once even a giant pumpkin trebuchet. The siege catapult let pumpkins fly great distances from the Pardon Gray fields in the general direction of Little Compton.
Others have attempted to build an unmanned boat that could cross the ocean but the bar in the attempt at this record is set low. An Irish team let one loose a few years ago only to have it come to grief about 60 miles out.
Scout’s first version would have been lucky to get that far, the builders say. Invited by for a look two summers ago, this newspaper was shown a little hull with solar panels up top. The voyage would start in a month or two, the reporter was told.
“We were a little too optimistic,” Mr. Rodriguez said.
As the boat versions have grown, so has the mostly Tiverton team, whose members sailed together as youngsters at the Tiverton Yacht Club.Joining Mr. Rodriguez (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, civil engineering), and Mr. Kramers (Tecnun-Escuela Superior de Ingenieras – mechanical engineering), are Dan Flanagan (Bucknell), Mike Flanagan (Notre Dame, aerospace engineering), Ryan Muller (WPI, the only non-Tiverton member – mechanical engineering), Brendan Prior (Endicott College, sailboat racer and the team’s business expert), and Dave Pimental (Northeastern University, computer science).
“We’re a good team — everybody contributes in their own ways,” Mr. Rodriguez said. Mr. Kramers is a composites whiz who comes by his knowledge of carbon fiber naturally — “He grew up with the stuff, his dad Dirk is composites engineer for the Oracle racing team.”
Both Flanagans are also skilled with composites — “Dan is our team motivator.” Mr. Muller has taken the lead with the tracking software that will enable the team to follow Scout once they let it loose.
The evolved Scout is built of carbon fiber with Divinycell foam core. The engine is an electric trolling motor, the batteries are lithium iron phosphate — same power but half the weight of lead acid.
Diners at Evelyn’s Drive-In have borne witness to the many versions of this unusual boat. Evelyn’s dock has served as starting place for many a test run out on Nanaquaket Pond and to many a moment of frustration as the teamencountered yet another snag and headed back to the garage. One night at about 3 a.m. Tiverton Police told them they should be heading home.
“But our list of big problems is shrinking — we are down to the last few,” Mr. Rodriguez said. Bound and determined to make an attempt this summer, they’ve worked around the clock in shifts.
Challenges include keeping salt water away from fragile motor and electronics. During one recent test on the Sakonnet River, things went badly. Turned out that salt water had entered through a taped seam. No such seams will exist when the boat is complete and the boat carries an automatic bilge pump should leaks happen.
Later, they wrote in their blog, “The next test was an ocean test. We towed Scout out onto the Sakonnet River to help put the waypoint bypass software to the test. The test had interesting results. At first it seemed that the test was going well, but then Scout started turning in circles and headed off in the completely wrong direction, seemingly intent on running full steam into Portsmouth. A standard period of depression ensued because the team didn’t know what could have caused the issue.”
Scout’s size has changed and so has its shape. The deck and solar array are angled, giving the boat an awkward look but accomplishing a few purposes. The deck tilt enables the solar panels to better face the sun, shed water and will also help Scout roll right side up if knocked over by waves. A bulbed keel, like those carried by racing sailboats, also keeps Scout upright (the boat is programmed to back up occasionally in hopes of losing any seaweed that keel may snag).
From the beginning, it’s been a process of design, build and then test. They’ve tested guidance systems out on the Sakonnet River and they’ve lashed Scout in the pool for all-night runs to see how long batteries and motor can operate without sunlight to recharge systems.
“In typical Scout fashion, nothing ever works the first time (and often not the second, third, or the fourth time either. We’ve become used to it), they wrote in the Scout blog.
As time on the project has risen, so have expenses. Sponsorships, chief among them Bristol-based Jamestown Distributors, have helped.
Finally last week came real progress.
They slipped Scout’s lines at Fogland Beach just before midnight and let the boat go on what would be a 23-hour sea trial.
Following along in a sailboat, they reached Sakonnet Point by 3 a.m. and headed out into the ocean.
“The day continued on and Scout continued to travel along at between two and three knots,” the Scout blog reports. “She was pretty easy to keep an eye on, and we had a good idea of where she was thanks to the thrice-hourly messages that we got back from Scout over the Iridium satellite network. During the day Scout was able to fully charge her batteries and had enough power to continue pushing herself along; we were all quite proud of this little boat!”
There was a worrisome moment when a tugboat and barge approached (and did not respond to radio calls) but that emergency passed. Other times, team members swam and even wake-boarded behind the dinghy in circles around Scout.
When it came time to head home, Scout dutifully turned about and motored back to the Sakonnet River.
And recently, Mr. Prior said, they had sent Scout out to do a square course on Nanaquaket Pond. “We went over to the Black Goose and had breakfast and watched as Scout behaved perfectly.”
“It has been a learning process from the beginning and Scout has taught us a lot.” The little boat has even influenced career paths – one team member has been so taken by the design process that he enrolled in a graduate program marine design in England. “It has affected all of is in similar ways,” adds Mr. Prior.
“Letting Scout loose is a really scary thought, like sending your kid off to college. You can’t help thinking of all the things that can go wrong,” Mr. Rodriguez said.
That list is long — boat collisions, storms, leaks — “someone could pick her up — Coast Guard, fishermen, pirate — we will label her and hope anyone who finds her lets her go,” Mr. Rodriguez said.
They expect Scout will travel along at 2 or 3 knots — It all depends on the sunshine and battery status — speed is really Scout’s decision. The precise route Scout will follow is not yet clear — two navigation experts are preparing a recommended route suited to a boat that size without sails.
“A whole bunch of us will follow along is a sailboat for awhile but we can only go so far — probably until we run out of food,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Then we’ll have to turn around and bid farewell to Scout.”
Once that happens, they’ll have no control over Scout. The boat will follow pre-programmed GPS waypoints that will hopefully guide her to to Spain.
But they will be able to track Scout’s positions by satellite — these will be posted (with slight delay) on the Scout website along with water temperatures, salinity and more.
And if Scout perseveres to within 400 miles of its destination, “we will all leave schools, jobs, whatever we are up to, get plane tickets and fly over to meet Scout.”
On the other hand, if Scout vanishes out on the Atlantic, Dylan guesses that the team is good for another try.
“Hopefully we’ll have an idea of what went wrong, what we can do better. We’d try away because if we weren’t doing this we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.”
Last weekend’s sea trial success “certainly put the project and our goal in perspective, and while Scout might not be ready for the great Atlantic yet, she is close, and we aren’t giving up. And neither is she,” they wrote.
“Spain, expect us.”