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Customer Spotlight - Ship-Shape 3D Printed Sailboat Parts from Olin Robotic Sailing

Olin’s Robotics Lab strikes again – you may have heard how researchers at Olin College of Engineering used their Mark One to design impact resistant quadcopter landing gear, and the printer has gone on to prove itself useful in other ways as well. Another team in the lab, the Olin Robotic Sailing Team (ORS), has been building fully autonomous robotic sailboats for nearly five years. The team competes in the International Robotic Sailing Regatta (IRSR), a niche competition for robotic sailing enthusiasts around the world. Each year, ORS builds a bigger and better boat: the team aspires to build the first fully autonomous robotic sailboat to cross the Atlantic Ocean. They originally started constructing 1-2 meter boats, but this year ORS challenged themselves and scaled it up a few notches: they turned a 4 meter Sunfish sailboat into an autonomous robot named Enterprise.

Scaling up a boat is a big challenge: with much larger sails and a larger hull, the boat was heavier and had to be able to handle stronger winds, especially at the IRSR, this year in Kingston, Ontario in Canada. In order to actuate a robotic sailboat, you need something to control the rudder and something to reel the sails in and out, as well as sensors to detect wind speed and direction. While smaller robotic sailboats just have a simple winch to reel in the sails, a larger boat necessitated a more complex mechanical system to account for stronger forces: the team designed an automatic sheet tensioning and gust release system to keep the line to the sails taut while allowing release in the case of a gust.

The system allows for both automatic tensioning and gust release.
‍A diagram of the mechanical sail control system that ORS designed, allowing for automatic tensioning and gust release.

Throughout the winter and spring of 2016, ORS went through an intense fabrication process to get Enterprise on the water and tested before the competition in early June. With large sails and strong wind conditions on Lake Ontario, their mechanical engineering team expected at maximum a few hundred pounds of force on their sails. Although the sheets went through an elaborate pulley system to reduce the direct load on their actuator, they needed a sturdy, low profile actuator mount that could take a blow if the sails encountered a huge gust of wind.

The bracket holds a powerful linear actuator, designed to take on heavy loads,
‍The 3D printed mounting bracket designed to take the loads of the sails.

The actuator itself and some of the electronics were to be housed in a waterproof forecastle at the front of the boat, and the team didn’t have much room to work with. With deadlines coming up fast and other high priority manufacturing tasks to complete, the team went to Olin’s Mark One to print a custom mount to secure the linear actuator in place.

The bracket is holding the linear actuator in place and securing it to the deck.
‍The 3D printed mounting bracket being put in place to secure the actuator.

3D printed sailboat parts, especially the bracket, initially seemed questionable. The mounting bracket needed to be tough – tough and sturdy enough to handle hard impacts and absorb the shock of a gust of wind. But with Olin’s engineering desktop Markforged 3D printer, the team could reinforce the bracket with Kevlar fibers to ensure a stable mounting point.

The springs provide automatic tensioning and gust release.
‍The gust release and sail control mechanism on the water.

With the Mark One able to expedite their manufacturing so that they could easily get their robot sea worthy, the team could test their system and stay on schedule for competition. At the IRSR, not only did the team have the largest boat there, but everyone was astounded that they were able to accomplish fabricating such a large system. Look out for the Enterprise on the water soon if you’re sailing in the Boston area!

The team testing their control systems on the water.
‍Enterprise during one of its first test missions.

Photos and images courtesy of William Lu and the Olin Robotic Sailing Team

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