The ROBOAT Project

I am toying with an idea. Toy may be appropriate but there is a lot of engineering nerdy-ness involved. That’s right down my alley. Brace yourself for the following toy hobby nerd-speak.

My vision is to turn a remote control type model boat into a robotically controlled model boat. They are both remotely controlled but the robot boat can and will have a lot more interesting things it can perform when underway, or even in port if we want to get into the details. For simplicity I will mostly use the term boat for any water craft including model ships.

The hobby of scale model boats has long been the construction and detailing of the boat model itself. The radio control (R/C) has been move a stick or control on the transmitter and a servo moves in proportion on the model. Some electric motor speed controllers can work directly off the radio pulse channel. Rudder position and speed control are the basics. But in my mind, it is an inaccurate experience to real ship movements.

Robotics can do all the same functions but with built in (programmed) intelligence. Rudders can be programmed to move at the same speed they do in proportion to the real craft. Left full rudder, left standard rudder, steer to course 130 degrees, maintain course 130 can all be programmed with robotics.

Of course an override can be built in to regain R/C type control in emergency.

Also imagine engine control with all ahead full, all ahead half, all stop with suitable prototype delay built in. Imagine the fun in actually operating the model ship and not just running it around the pond in loops.

That’s only a small part of the new control of robotics. The link to the model is a wireless Local Area Network (LAN). I mean a Two-Way LAN. The model can feed information back to the operator. All kinds of sensors can be deployed on the model. Think about reading feedback from GPS for real position and real speed. RPM of the motor(s) can be detected as well as the motor(s) temperature. Maybe you want to know water temperature. Perhaps control a two axis remote controlled video camera in the bridge? Turning things on and off like lights or sound is no problem.

With GPS available, a course can be downloaded to the boat and the operation can be somewhat autonomous. A fail safe (loss of LAN) and the ship can go to all stop or perhaps reverse course and come back to the starting point.

My thought is the robotics can be a totally new hobby and adventure all in itself. Maybe beyond the abilities of the normal scale modeler until a commercial “package” is created. But perhaps partner”ships” can be created between scale boat builders and robotic control geeks.

The hardware to do this is all off the shelf. It exists, even the wireless LAN components. I could purchase all the parts today from a company called Parallax. They make a very powerful and tiny octal processor (eight processors on one chip) than can do what I have described with available I/O components. The name of this little computer is the “Propeller”. Go figure… There are many other small control type computers available so it doesn’t have to be this single sourced.

The robotic hobby is very mature. It has been around a long time and many technical schools sponsor robotic competitions. You may have seen some of the “killer” robotic competitions on television. That isn’t robotics at all. To me they are just radio controlled crashing machines. They do draw the crowd to robotic events where real robots show off.

I just haven’t seen much done (but some) with robotic model boats. The control geek in me thinks it would be a ton of adventure in designing the system then writing and testing all the code variation that can be built into the programming. This becomes a true reason to go to the pond and test out new features. My pond is in the back yard but you see my point. This puts real operation into the pleasure of watching model boats on the water.

I would like to share the experience if there are others who might be interested. Comments welcomed here or in TEDEX.  I may put this project into its own web page if others want to contribute thoughts and ideas. TEDEX can carry it for now.

I am at point 0.01 at the moment, but I feel I will be moving on this idea before long. I have neither the model nor the controls but that is going to change. I think the model has to be big and heavy enough to be stable, about three to four feet in length. Not too detailed, but it needs to look good. I am a lifelong model builder so this is doable for me. Easy internal access is a prime requirement as this is the control test bed. Running occasionally without superstructure is probably a given.

My first step though will probably be to acquire the onboard control computer and LAN radios to make sure this link idea will really work. Well, I know it will work, it’s already been done. I just want to experience it working and write some code.

Hey, there might be some commercial business opportunity fall out of all this. Robo-Boats! I bet someone else is already there…