The JCU team didn’t leave Sydney without a prize, and they actually won two awards: The Blue Robotics Award, which came with a package of four thrusters (small outboard motors) plus a controller for the thrusters, and the Value Can Do award, which came with a thousand-dollar cheque.
The JCU team won the awards because of their innovative, low-cost approach when building the ‘brain’ of the autonomous boat. While the physical boat was the same model for all participants, the real challenge laid in constructing a ‘brain’ that tells the boat what to do.
“In the boat, we have a hive mind of little Raspberry Pis that do all the work for us,” Ethan says. He explains that Raspberry Pis are small and inexpensive single-board computers.
“At the moment, we use four Raspberry Pis, all linked together, doing different things. Raspberry Pis are great for doing little jobs. But we had no central unit where difficult tasks could be processed. There was also no standardised communication between the Raspberry Pis. It was a very Frankenstein attempt at a brain,” Ethan says and laughs.
Succeeding with a low-cost approach
“But it worked, and the judges were very impressed with how we made the boat work with Raspberry Pis. That's one of the reasons we got the prizes,” Ethan says. “A lot of the individual components of our boat were actually quite exceptional, as they performed very well at such little cost.”
The JCU team says they intend to spend their prize winnings to upgrade their computing power on their boat. “With a dedicated central processing unit, the boat could have done so much better. We'll see what happens next time, now that we can afford to buy one,” Ethan says.
The thrusters given to them by Blue Robotics will also be put to good use. “Our current thrusters are big and quite powerful. We intend to use the small Blue Robotics thrusters for adjusting the nose of the boat to increase its stability and manoeuvrability,” Ethan says. “They are very compact, perhaps only ten by ten by five centimetres. This will give us a better, more precise control over the course of the boat.”