RobotX: Succeeding with the robot boat

The JCU team at RobotX 2022 (Supplied by: Ethan Waters).

Personnel Image

Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

4 May 2023

Competing at RobotX Sydney

RobotX is an international competition where university students demonstrate how well their driverless boats can negotiate unexpected challenges. The small and highly motivated JCU team, which consisted entirely of undergraduate students, recently travelled to Sydney to compete at RobotX and won two prizes in recognition of their clever robot boat design.

Participating in an international autonomous boat competition, such as , might be a challenge that could scare away many undergraduate students. This was not the case for the JCU RobotX team, which is headed by Ethan Waters, a fifth year Bachelor of Engineering - Bachelor of Science student majoring in Electrical Engineering and Data Science.

“Most universities that competed at RobotX in Sydney had postgraduates on their teams. The few undergraduates in other teams were mostly Honours students whose research related to RobotX,” Ethan says. “The JCU team comprised exclusively of undergraduate students, ranging from first-year all the way through to fourth-year students.”

Challenged by the elements

With the JCU RobotX team raring to go in Sydney, not everything went according to plan. “We had strong winds, and a number of the days out on the water were cancelled because of storms,” Ethan says. “The teams could still work on our boats in the sheds, but we couldn't go in the water because the winds were so strong.”

But there was more to come for the teams. “Two days before the finals, the strong winds had destroyed all the courses, and the local organisers had to make a lot of last-minute repairs,” Ethan says. “For our team, these were difficult conditions to drive a boat, let alone an autonomous boat.”

The JCU robotics team that travelled to Sydney for RobotX 2022: Christopher Payne, Ross Siddins, Rio Thomas, Ethan Waters, Jack Nguyen, Joshua Smallwood, Topher Rawlings, Daniel Ballin, Daniel Croul (Supplied: Ethan Waters)

Congested airwaves

With so many robot boats on the water and jamming the airwaves, the JCU team had to work to overcome this challenge as well. “There were more than twenty teams, all trying to do the exact same thing. So, you had all these communication systems going all at once,” Ethan says.

“This means we had severe radiofrequency pollution. Many teams were unable to communicate between their boat and their controlling devices — or their ground stations — because their signals were weak in comparison to other teams who had more expensive receivers and transmitters,” Ethan says. Ethan says the JCU team hadn’t anticipated this challenge when they were trialling the boat off the coast of Townsville, where there were no other autonomous boats around.

“The other teams were using the same frequencies for some functions. So, sometimes we would get a signal and sometimes we wouldn't. That made testing our boat and passing the required safety tests very difficult,” Ethan says.

Rising up to the challenge

The JCU team, however, were ready to rise to the challenge. “We finally had a system in place that could handle those things that we didn't expect. We would have someone to constantly monitor the frequencies that were used by the other teams and then hop between different frequencies to avoid losing contact to the boat,” Ethan says. “It was the very last run of the entire competition when we did it. The communication systems worked, and we mastered the challenge. It was quite monumental."

While the team didn’t make it into the top three, Ethan says he was very happy about how the team was able to perform and overcome all of the difficulties throughout their time in Sydney. “Our goal was to pass the first autonomous challenge and see what other capabilities our robot boat had. But we actually completed two challenges, so I'm really happy with that,” Ethan says.

JCU RobotX 2022 boat.
JCU RobotX boat 2022.
The JCU RobotX team in Sydney (Supplied: Ethan Waters).

Two awards for the JCU team

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.”

The JCU RoboX team 2022.
The JCU RobotX team 2022.
The RobotX team in Sydney. Left: Ethan Waters (centre) with the JCU RobotX team (Supplied: Ethan Waters).

Looking forward to RobotX 2024

The next RobotX competition will be in 2024, and the JCU team is planning to compete again. “We are already continuing to build our boat, and continuing to work on the project,” Ethan says. “If the competition is in Australia, it's very likely that we'll be able to financially afford it. If its international, we might have to send a smaller, more experienced group of individuals to the competition."

Ethan expects that the JCU team will be in a somewhat better position for RobotX 2024, as they will have experience to draw upon, an improved boat and, potentially, sponsors. “Sponsors will feel more confident and comfortable knowing that we will be there and can advertise their brand,” Ethan says.

“At the competition, we have met a number of sponsors who we've started talking with already regarding funding, and who we met at the competition,” Ethan says. “We already have the equipment that we purchased for the last competitions. We can keep building on that.”

“Every year we're going to be making the JCU robot boat better and better. So, I'm really excited to see what we can do for the next RobotX competition.”

JCU Bachelor of Engineering - Bachelor of Science Student Ethan Waters

Joining the RobotX team

Keen to learn more about robot boats? The is always looking for JCU students interested in joining the team in preparation for RobotX 2024.

RobotX is an interdisciplinary team challenge, and the teams often include engineering and computer science students who work on the boat, as well as team members from other disciplines who work on the technical documentation, the website and the team introduction video. For more, see the .

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