On typical Thursday afternoon in late summer, the Charles River is a busy place with sailboats crisscrossing the water. On one of them, a sailor sits at the helm navigating around a set of buoys, while another adjusts the sails. A closer look reveals the sailors are blind, and are testing out a new technology developed at Olin College that will improve the lives of people who, like them, relish competitive sailing and are visually impaired.
Working under the direction of Olin faculty members Alex Morrow, John Geddes and Paul Ruvolo, a group of Olin students known as Olin Adaptive Team Sailing has invented a system that helps blind sailors compete in match racing, a sailing competition in which two teams of visually impaired sailors race against one another without assistance from sighted sailors.
Currently the sailors use the Homerus Autonomous Sailing System. The Homerus system marks the course with three buoys, each with a different siren. Each sailboat has two additional sirens on board. Each buoy is constantly sounding its siren and each competing boat is constantly sounding either a port or starboard tack siren. The sounds made by the sirens are meant to help the sailors navigate the course and avoid collisions.
"We have been talking to the sailors about what they would like to see added to the system,"said Olin sophomore Rachel Yang, one of the students involved in the project. "The overall goal is to improve the sailor's source of information, to give them approximately the same information about the course that a sighted sailor would have."
Yang and fellow Olin students Kaitlyn Keil, Rebecca Jordan and Mary Keenan worked on the system over the summer. Jordan and Keil are continuing to improve the system during the school year as part of the Claire Booth Luce research fellowship program.
The Olin system will add two components to make it easier for each team to determine the position and direction of the competing boats and the buoys: a GPS sensor to measure each boat's position relative to the competing boat and the acoustic buoys, and a boom sensor is used to detect which tack the boat is on. Each boat has a small computer in a waterproof container that uses Wi-Fi signals to transmit GPS and tack information between the competing boats.
The user interface for the system utilizes a computer-synthesized voice to communicate the relative position and velocity of the boats to the sailors by wireless headphones. The system provides an alarm if the boats get too close to one another. Olin Adaptive Team Sailing has been testing its system at various venues, including Rockport Harbor, Community Boating on the Charles, and on the Olin campus.
Sailors who have experienced the Olin prototypes give them a thumbs up. Matt Chao, a blind sailor from Newton, Mass., who has decades of experience in the fiercely competitive world of blind racing, says the Olin system will significantly improve his experience of sailing.
"This system will allow me to be more independent as a skipper or crew member," said Chao. "Most of what I do is helm -- I'm a driver -- and this will give me a greater degree of independence and will return silence back to the boat, as opposed to the current system, which has a lot of audible stimuli."
Blind sailor Duane Farrar used the prototypes at Olin, and also sees them as a big step forward.
"The students have made some really good progress this year," said Farrar. "I think one of the real strengths of the system the team is developing is locating the other boat -- knowing where they are, how they are moving, how far away -- in match racing, that's everything."
Olin faculty member Alex Morrow, who's been leading the project since fall 2013, envisions a time when the new Olin system will work in tandem with the Homerus system. He sees a small-scale manufacturing effort taking place over the next year to create up to eight of the new devices for use at blind sailing venues around the country.
"All the Olin students who have worked on the project over the last few years have contributed to where we are now -- a prototype system that Boston blind sailing teams actually enjoy using," said Morrow. "Blind sailing is an international sport, and my hope is that Olin students can eventually produce a blind sailing system that can be shared with the rest of the world."
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