by Des Ryan
They have been working on the project since 2006, and it's finally happened. An unmanned robotic yacht called Pinta has been launched off the Irish coast as part of what's been called the 'Microtransat Challenge'.
Pinta with shore crew
Pinta, named for the fastest of Christopher Columbus's three ships which crossed the Atlantic in 1492, is 3m long and was built by scientists at Aberystwyth University, who have carried out sea trials and taken part in competitions with other organisations seeking the same goal since June 2006.
It's a race, but so far has only one starter. The race started from Valentia, County Kerry, Ireland. Only the team from Aberystwyth University were able to launch during this time. However the team from ENSIETA in Brest, France are still hoping to launch their boat Breizh Spirit in a few weeks time.
The finish line is along the line of 60 degrees West, between 10 and 25 degrees North. Each team must designate a 50km wide point centred on this line which they are aiming for.
Teams from around the world, who have taken part in previous years, have used on-board sensors and GPS technology to help their boats sail themselves from courses set by computer.
But the prognosis is not very good for the small yacht. 'I don't think Pinta will succeed because there are some horrible weather conditions out there' says one of the brains behind the Irish project, Dr Mark Neal of Aberystwyth University.
Dr Neal, one of the founders of the challenge from Aberystwyth University, said the aim was to build robots that could survive in hostile environments for long periods. But he said he did not expect his boat, Pinta, to succeed.
He added: 'The team from Brest (France) pulled out at the last minute partly because of the weather conditions. There are 35 to 40 knot winds and the remnants of a hurricane.'
'It will probably capsize. It is waterproof, but it won't survive the continual flipping over. At this point it could well turn out to be the world's first robotic sailing boat shipwreck.'
If Pinta were to survive the next few days of storms and manage to claw her way off the Irish coast then her final destination is the Caribbean and the crossing should take at least three months.
Dr Neal, who has been helped by Phd student Colin Sauze, said Pinta was crafted from a child's dinghy and 'second-hand and cheap parts'.
Complete with small solar panels, the boat can be programmed to sail the course of a race but must be propelled by just the wind.