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An interview with Kevin Morin on MarkSetBot's new RaceOS technology

by David Schmidt 18 Nov 2020 08:00 PST November 18, 2020
An bird's eye view of a RaceOS starting line © Image courtesy of MarkSetBot

If you've ever volunteered for Race Committee duty, or if you race on waters with habitually shifty winds, you're familiar with the headaches that promptly unfurl when Mother Nature's mood shift renders a perfect starting line not-so-square. Sometimes this leads to OCS calls, restarts, and general recalls, and it can make a race less fair than it should otherwise be. Fortunately, some forward-leaning technology has arrived that's poised to hopefully make these headaches a thing of the past for properly equipped yacht clubs, events, fleets and race committees.

In June, we ran an interview (www.sail-world.com/news/229386/A-QandA-with-Kevin-Morin-about-the-MarkSetBots) with Kevin Morin, the founder and creator of MarkSetBot, about his company's highly innovative self-propelled and GPS-guided racing marks. Now, the company is again making headlines with their RaceOS technology. This racecourse-management tool, which was a collaborative effort between MarkSetBot, TracTrac, SAP Sailing Analytics, Calypso Instruments, SailBot, and Yacht Scoring, delivers full racecourse automation using cutting-edge software and a small fleet of MarkSetBots.

To leverage this technology, a yacht club needs RaceOS, at least three MarkSetBots (two for the starting line and one as a windward mark, which also serves as a private weather station), and each raceboat needs a tracking beacon that allows RaceOS to detect OCS boats during the start. The starting sequence is announced to racers using bot-activated horns and smartphone, smartwatch and VHF alerts. Once the fleet begins racing, the starting marks self-adjust to become leeward gates, and the windward bot constantly gathers—and shares—wind information that allows the bots to keep everything square to the air.

Race committees can either leverage RaceOS in its fully automated mode, where a few screen taps establishes and maintains the course, or—for higher-level regattas—a PRO can run the show using a wireless device and make all of the critical decisions.

RaceOS has already been used to conduct several club-level regattas, and it's likely going to make its debut onto sailing's grander stages in 2021.

I checked in with Morin, via email, to learn more about this game-changing technology.

What was the highest hurdle(s) that you had to clear in developing RaceOS?

There have been so many hurdles over the past five years. Big setbacks and challenges to overcome. Our team thrives on adversity and is driven to solve the unsolvable.

With MarkSetBot, the biggest challenge has been getting the Bots to anchor and navigate seamlessly. We have spent a huge amount of time tweaking to get it just right. We are at 5,000+ hours at this point.

For RaceOS, our biggest challenge was coming up with a way to detect boats that are over early. We have spent three years working on different ideas. On October 24, 2020, we ran the first ever fully autonomous regatta in Detroit, Michigan. Seeing it all come together is incredible.

Without divulging any proprietary secrets, how did you and your team overcome this challenge(s)?

Unending perseverance. Regardless of the challenge, the team has continued to work day in and day out for many years. Each failure set us up to eventually succeed.

We develop in an incremental way...one where we prioritize our development list and then crush items one at a time. The building blocks needed for RaceOS have been on our development list for the past five years.

Day after day we worked closer to bringing it to the world. Along the way, we found people passionate about course automation, and we partnered with them.

What was your main goal in developing RaceOS? Also, what do you see as the main benefit to sailors who are racing on courses that employ MarkSetBots and RaceOS? What about to race committees?

We approach our solutions from both the race committee and racer standpoint. Our mission is to make it easier to set great race courses. We have been working on the building blocks of RaceOS since 2015. All of the craziness of 2020 has created an interesting opportunity for us.

The sailing world asked for ways to run races with less people, and we answered. The need for social distancing is a huge part of why we pushed so hard to get RaceOS Level 4 automation released this year (see below for details on the automation levels).

Our club end up without any volunteers showing up to run races this year. So, we took the opportunity to Botify the entire course. This gave us the opportunity to test RaceOS in real-life situations the whole season.

People keep reaching out with stories about the Bots saving the day...regattas happening that would have been cancelled otherwise. In 2020, that has been the main benefit of MarkSetBot and RaceOS - racing actually happening.

In a more normal year, our tools help race officers run races more easily. Moving marks effortlessly, sounding horns at the leeward gate, and reporting wind data from the weather mark. All the things that race officers around the world want.

At the other extreme, local clubs around the world have been struggling to get volunteers for years. Full course automation is for them. It allows clubs to easily run races any day of the week.

Who were your main partners in developing RaceOS and what expertise did each player bring to the table?

Our key partners are TracTrac, SailBot, and Calypso.

When you pair our MarkSetBot robotic marks with TracTrac trackers on every boat, a SailBot horn, and Calypso Wind instruments, you have everything you need to enable full course automation.

All four solutions are great on their own. When RaceOS ties them all together, you end up with something incredible.

Can you describe the different levels of automation that MarkSetBots and RaceOS now deliver to yacht clubs and event organizers? Also, what levels of automation are appropriate for a casual weekend regatta, and what levels are better suited to an important regatta such as a Nationals or Worlds event?

There are six levels of automation (see our chart on www.marksetbot.com/RaceOS).

Level 0 is how races have been run in the past. Level 1 automation helps mark boats know where to drop traditional marks. Level 2 automation brings MarkSetBots in to the mix. This allows the entire course to be adjusted from the signal boat.

Level 3 automation couples MarkSetBots with wind and horn systems. This allows race officers to know what direction to set courses and allows them to signal course changes from our app.

Level 4 automation is what we rolled out in October 2020. It allows a race to be run without any race committee boats or people.

In the first fully autonomous regatta, I was sailing and controlled the entire racecourse from my phone. We did it with three MarkSetBots, a wind instrument, a horn system, and trackers on every boat. The races were all square (in spite of 20-degree shifts) with zero incremental environmental impact (Bots charged via solar).

Level 5 automation includes all the capabilities of Level 4 but adds in machine learning to control the course.

For high-profile regattas with professional race committee, Level 3 automation is ideal. For local racing, Level 4 and Level 5 are great options.

Does RaceOS use machine learning or any other A.I. technologies to keep the racecourse and starting/finishing lines square to the wind? If so, can you give us a 20,000 foot description of how this works?

We have a big list of what will be included in Level 5 automation. It is very exciting stuff. I think people are going to be blown away when they see it.

At the highest level, you will setup competitors (including type of boat), set a starting time, select a center point for the racing area, and pick an ideal duration. From there, it will handle everything. Course setup. Course changes. Notifications. It will fully run the course.

Is it correct to think that since MarkSetBots and RaceOS help reduce sailing's environmental footprint? If so, can you explain how this works? Less mark boats on the water?

Competitive sailing races depend on well set race courses. But races - from local, weeknight around-the-buoy races to the highest professional circuits - often require fleets of powerboats setting marks, burning fossil fuels, and consuming volunteer resources. In deep-water venues, this pollution is often compounded with marks set using line and cinder blocks that are abandoned at the end of each day. Miles of line and piles of blocks at the bottom of the world's most beautiful lakes and oceans have left local governments and organizations scrambling to reconcile lost animal life and damaged ecosystems due to sailing practices.

The environmental impact of using MarkSetBots and RaceOS is substantial.

We asked Earth2Ocean to conduct an environmental assessment of the traditional way versus our "Botter Way." Their findings are inspiring. With RaceOS and solar panels, it is easy to run regattas that have zero incremental environmental impact. Check out full details www.marksetbot.com/sustainability.

Anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

Our underlining big picture goal is for MarkSetBot to supersede the traditional mark as the standard for sailboat racing worldwide. We want everyone to see our technology as indispensable, and we love building tools that make running races easier. To that end, if [readers] have awesome ideas that [they] want us to bring to life, please reach out and share them with us.

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