Building autonomous sailboats

Jonathan Barrows, engineer and boat builder at Autonomous Marine Systems.

Credit: Bob Seay/WGBH News

The Inventors At Work In Somerville

March 1, 2018

In a former autobody shop in Somerville, scientists and engineers are working to turn their visions into inventions. And what they come up with may have a profound effect on how we produce and consume energy in the future.

But walking along Somerville Avenue, no one would suspect what is going on inside one nondescript brick building. Inside is the largest clean technology incubator in the United States, said Julia Travaglini, senior director of marketing and chief of staff at Greentown Labs.

"You can see high-altitude wind turbines," Travaglini said, while showing off the space. "You can see gas combustion systems for natural gas, you see underwater drone technology, underwater battery technology for autonomous vehicles, and that's just right here."

There are 75 tech startups in the space, and more are expected to join. Greentown Labs was founded in 2011, when four MIT engineers faced a challenge: where could they build things and not break the bank? They found an abandoned warehouse in Cambridge, which they quickly outgrew, as the original four companies became nine, then 25. The growth led the company to move to larger quarters in the Seaport's Innovation District, but Travaglini says they were forced out of that area by high rents.

"The price of rent was skyrocketing," she said. "At that time when we joined I think they were about $8 a square foot. By the time we were leaving they had gone up to over $50 a square foot, which isn't sustainable for community of startup entrepreneurs."

That's when Mayor Joseph Curtatone welcomed them to move to more affordable Somerville. The result is that Greentown Labs now occupies two buildings, totaling 100,000 square feet. The company provides clean energy start-ups a place to incubate, growing their businesses to the point where they can exist and prosper on their own.

Greentown Labs tenants describe themselves as passionate entrepreneurs solving big energy and environmental problems. And one of them is Autonomous Marine Systems, where Ravijit Paintal is the CEO.

"These [are] little unmanned sailboats that can go out into the marine environment and collect data very efficiently and very effectively," Paintal said.

Paintal isn't talking about those technological marvels racing for the America's Cup; more like small catamarans powered only by the wind, with onboard computers powered only by the sun. These are autonomous — not only is no one on board these sailboats, no one on shore is controlling them either. Once they are launched, they're on their own, for months to years at a time, programmed to sail a pre-set course before returning home.

Company founder Eamon Carrig began thinking about his invention when he saw the expense and difficulty of doing ocean research with traditional vessels and technology. And with no one on board, no one can get hurt. Or, as Carrig likes to say: "Never send a sailor to do a robot's job."

AMS’ Datamaran conducting a survey off of Boston Harbor.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMS

After much trial and error, the design Carrig came up with is a 12-foot-long, double-hulled boat with two small motorized rudders, and a sail made of plastic. Carrig calls them "datamarans," and they are remarkably buoyant.

The boats are designed to acquire data on a broad scale — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And there are lots of options when it comes to what data to collect, and for whom. Consider the burgeoning offshore wind farm industry.

"You want wind profiles, and you want them over the area of your lease, which could be 20 miles by 15 miles," said Paintal. "Today, you can't really get that data, or you've got to spend lots and lots of money to get a subset of what you really want."

This technology could change that, Paintal says, as it could improve data collection in industries ranging from climate change research, to fisheries management, to the Department of Defense's communication with its submarines.

Whether its these autonomous boats, or hydrogen fuel pumps, new solar panels or water recycling for laundromats, one of the inventions to come out of Somerville's Greentown Labs could have a big impact on how we live our lives in the future.

WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top