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Robot boats in ocean race trials

3 September 07 12:33 GMT

Teams are preparing off the Ceredigion coast for a race of transatlantic yachts - but no-one is aboard.

The small, robotic boats are taking part in sea trials with scientists from universities in Canada, Austria, France, as well as Aberystwyth.

On-board sensors and GPS technology help the boats "sail themselves" after courses set by computer.

The unmanned craft will sail from Brittany next year to the Caribbean, a distance of 4,000 miles (6,436km).

The aim of the race is to develop the use of unmanned sailing boats.

Called Microtransat 2008, the challenge was conceived by academics in Aberystwyth and Toulouse, France, and it is thought to be the world's first transatlantic race for such boats.

Complete with small solar panels, they can be programmed to sail the course of a race but must be propelled by just the wind.

David Kelling and two colleagues from Queens University in Kingston, Canada, are taking part in the trials in Aberystwyth.

He said: "Basically, this boat can sail entirely by itself. It does not require any user input so it uses a combination of several different sensors.

"It uses wind speed, GPS and it calculates on its own where it needs to sail. Then you basically send it off and it goes around the course by itself."

Next year's racing boats must be no longer than 4m long.

Those being tested in Aberystwyth are about half that size, although the technology is the same.

Dr Mark Neal from the department of computer science at Aberystwyth came up with the idea for the race.

He said: "The aim of the race is to stimulate the development of autonomous sailing boats.

"This may seem esoteric and trivial, but there are large numbers of applications that would benefit greatly from robot sailing boats."

Dr Neal said next year's boats must be "fully autonomous", self-sufficient in terms of energy and no longer than four metres in length.

Teams from around the world are expected to take part.

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