Over the Sea We Go

Lightfish ASV on course for Hawaii

Lightfish ASV on its voyage from San Diego to Hawaii

Welcome to Make Things, a weekly newsletter for the Maker community from Make:. This newsletter lives on the web at makethings.make.co. This week, we’re out on the water.

Table of Contents

A new robo-boat from Seasats

In early 2022, the photo on the cover of Make: Vol 78 shows the X3 prototype of an autonomous boat and the story about the robo-boat and the team building it was written by Mike Flanigan, CEO of Seasats, a company formed by Mike, his older brother and three friends to build boats that could traverse the oceans without anybody aboard.

Make: V78 (digital edition)

Two years later, Mike reached out to let us know about the Lightfish, a new autonomous surface vehicle (ASV), which was released from San Diego on March 29, 2024 and is scheduled to reach Hawaii on Monday, June 10 at 12:30 PDT. The distance from San Diego is around 2,500 miles. You can track the boat live at https://track.seasats.com.

“The Lightfish is about a couple hundred nautical miles out currently,” said Mike when we spoke last week.

Screen capture from camera view from the boat taken on June 5 4:25pm PT

“We got our start in this company back in the scout days, which was really garage DIY autonomous boats, like what's possible with early Arduino and different things and scrappier satellite communications,” said Mike. “A lot of the tech that's available today wasn't there.”

“Back then, you see boats behaving a little bit more like directed buoys. It's okay, they're going in the right direction but you can see them drifting along and going off course based on wind and currents.” The Lightfish is able to maintain its course.

“We launched ours from inside the Mission Bay Harbor. It drove itself out the channel. It's followed right along this line, besides a small run in with a net, which is visible on the tracker, and then it's going to drive itself right into a slip in Hawaii,” said Mike.

I asked Mike if the Lightfish has been tested in bad weather conditions. He showed me the following video of the Lightfish in choppy conditions off of the California Coast. “The Lightfish gets into really big waves — this was not done on purpose. We were actually just coming in on a nice day in San Diego, but there happened to be a big storm swell coming across the channel that we weren't really aware of when doing the operational planning. So, a little bit of an error or screw up on our part, but it made for some good testing and some good video.” As we watched the video together, he pointed out: “See, it's flipped upside down, hops back upright and then starts motoring back on its mission. So they really, they do well.”

Among the DIY efforts in the past was Damon McMillan’s solar-powered SeaCharger, which appeared at Maker Faire Bay Area in 2016 and then was launched from Half Moon Bay. The garage-built Seacharger arrived in Hawaii 41 days later. Damon wrote about the voyage, “The Little Boat that Could” in Make: Volume 55 in the spring of 2017. The story is online here. It’s one of my all-time favorite stories in Make, especially if you know the “rest of the story.”

Damon McMillan’s Seacharger in 2016

I asked Mike about the obstacles that this boat might encounter. “Collision avoidance is a big one,” he said. “We can both broadcast on AIS as well as receive, and then it can do the vehicle can do autonomous collision avoidance when it's in the ocean, so it can give vehicles that are coming by wide berths and make sure that basically no one passes too close, so the vehicle stays out of the way of traffic.”

It uses short 2D LiDAR but Mike said that there's still some development work, which the autonomous car industry is also dealing with. “The situational awareness at medium range is the problem,” he said. “Detecting a fast moving jet ski at several hundred yards, and being able to spot that early enough is a challenge.”

The big obstacle for this voyage of the Lightfish ASV was its prop getting entangled in netting. They anticipated having problems like this one and built routines for freeing the boat but it was still difficult to accomplish.

Netting tangling a prop

"For this Hawaii mission, we actually did end up in a situation where we hit a ghost net. And ghost nets are particularly tricky because you can imagine fishing line is really thin and it's designed to be tough.”

The net was stuck between the skeg and the blades. “The vehicle detected it and then started running its prop clearing routine,” said Mike. “You can see in the track that actually, for quite a while, it was able to still steer with the rudder. However, it reduced the speed of the boat to a quarter of normal. It was basically only slightly better than drifting at that point.” For several weeks, the prop was running trying to do this clearing routine. “We were able to turn on the Starlink, look at the rudder camera, and basically tune that routine to try to chafe the net free. A couple of times we made progress. If you imagine it like spinning a towel, you could see the whole net moving and we could reverse it.”

Mike said that things were looking a little bit grim for a while but the prop eventually got free of the ghost net. Then the underwater camera could focus on the tiny fish swimming nearby.

Underwater camera catches fish

Mike plans to go to Hawaii next week to meet the Lightship when it arrives. I’ll provide an update and also talk about the Lightship’s payloads.

Micro Boat - a 3D Printed Boat

Building your own boat is definitely a maker thing. Joe of MicroFactory3D has shared his plans for a modular, 3D printable boat on Cults3D. The model shown is 5’8” long but the design can be extended. Joe says that he’s spent over 100 hours on the water in his own craft and believes it is the smallest registered boat on the water in his home state of Oregon. From the photo, it looks like his legs must stick out the bottom of the boat, Flintstone-style.

The boat is foam-filled to be buoyant and the hull is wrapped in fiberglass. It has a battery-powered motor that is good for about 8 miles. Here’s a photo of the boat out of the water. It’s a beauty.

“Sneaky” Cy Tymony

If you haven’t heard my interview with Cy Tymony on Make:cast, I encourage you to listen to the “The Sneaky DIY Of Cy Tymony.” Cy reveals his DIY worldview, which he acquired as a child and which informs his many books. He is an enthusiast for learning and he hopes to pass on his knowledge to others, particularly children. One of his favorite hobbies is dollar origami.

I get bored sometimes and I make rings and cars and spaceships out of dollars. And it really helps out because if you’re in line at the rental counter or on an airplane, it just takes your mind away from everything. And then when you give it away, people don’t throw it away because it’s made out of currency. We always have currency on us, so you never run out of something to do. 

Cy Tymony

Next Fireside Chat on June 18: Bill Hammack on “The Things We Make”

Join us for a conversation with Bill Hammack, who teaches engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He is also well-known for his EngineerGuy videos on YouTube.  Bill is the author of "The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Catherdrals to Soda Cans," which was published in 2023.

In his book, Bill shares the details of the powerful, revolutionary and, suprisingly, little known engineering method that has influenced readers lives intimately, deeply, and lastingly. The book argues that engineering is distinct from science -- and that in no way is engineering "applied science" because the purpose of the engineering method is to solve problems before we have full scientific understanding. The results of engineering are not the products of science. The scientific method creates knowledge; the engineering method creates solutions. The products of engineers arise from a method, almost a mindset, that is rarely articulated, almost invisible, yet is universal across cultures and throughout history—no society has survived without some form of the engineering method.

To register, visit this Zoom events link.


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