“You know what’s cool? Unmanned self-driving vehicles. They are so cool in fact that we (my uni colleagues and me) started to build one ourselves back in 2018. That is also why I set out this year to finally finish it in my free time.
In this Instructable I want to share this project with you and get you into building your own self-driving vehicle. I also made a little YouTube Video that scratches the surface of the project and gives you a quick rundown of all the mishaps along the way. This Instructable is the correlating guide that explains how this thing actually works.
Who is this Instructable for and how to read it
This Instructable actually has two purposes. First and foremost, I want to share what I have built and learned and get you guys interested in building self driving vehicles. The secondary purpose is to document the project and most of it’s details so the next student group at my old university, that picks up the project knows whats up.
If you are just here for fun, you can ignore details like parameter lists and precise wiring diagrams. I’ll try to keep the steps very generic in the beginning, so they can be applied to any ArduPilot RC boat and put the details at the end.
The project was finished in two parts and the Instructable follows the same structure. I’m going to refer to the first part as the “muscles” as it includes all of the power electronics and the boats hull. Then I’m going to go over the “Brain” which is a little box on top of the boat, that contains the main controller and all of the receiver transmitter stuff.
The origins of the Kenterprise
Allright, here ist the backstory to this project, if you haven’t heard it in the video already. This project started in 2018 when I was still in university. We were at the end of the 4th semester going towards the 5th. At our university you get to do a team project for about 6 months. You can either choose from a list of prepared projects (good chance of a good grade) or start your own project (no one ever did this before to my knowledge). You also get 12 Credit points for this project, which makes it worth as much as the bachelors thesis. This way failing can really make a difference in your overall grade.
I of course I decided to start a project from scratch and found 4 poor souls to follow me on this journey into a dumpster fire of a team-project. We started of with the minimum required team size of 5 people but 2 of us later left. We were also given 1500, BUT we were not allowed to spend it on any of those lovely chinese webshops that always have the latest and greatest electronics. Instead we were bound to good old german electronics suppliers. Spoiler: It is kind of impossible to get self driving boat components this way.
The Original Idea
When we thought of an idea for the project, we thought about doing something drone related because drones are just the coolest thing ever. However normal flying drones are already a thing and we wanted to build something more novel. So we decided to build a drone boat. We got this idea because of a nearby lake.
The lake covers an area of 12km^2 and is mostly just 1.5m deep. This means that it heats up in the summer month, while there is also less water in it. You know what lifeform loves warm waters: Cyanobacteria, also referred to as blue algea in germany. Under the right conditions these things can reproduce in no time and cover large areas while producing toxins that can harm humans and animals alike. The purpose of the boat was to regularly sweep the surface of the lake and measure the algea concentration. Then the collected data can be printed to a heatmap to understand under which circumstances algea starts do build up and also to issue real time warnings to locals and tourists.
Another Spoiler: We we were never able to build a measuring assembly for blue algea and fit it onto a boat, as such assemblies are verrrry costly and are usually housed in a 1mx1mx2m rack on a ship, which is an impractical size for a 1m long boat. The new focus is to automatically and cheaply create depth maps off the lake to enable the local biologist to see how the lake bed changes over time. Right now scanning it is very costly due to the necesary manual labor.
A Downwards Spiral
Back to the story. In the first two months of gathering background knowledge and planning we considered what such a boat would need: A hull, an electric drive train, self-driving capabilities, internet controlability, … . That was when I decided that we should build almost everything ourselves with a focus on autonomous driving. This was a bad idea, an idea that was pretty much doomed to fail and guess what it did? Exactly, 6 months later we had poured our time and sweat into a huge RC boat, the Kenterprise (Infographic in image 4). On the way we struggled with limited money, no available electronics and bad team management, which I take most of the responsibility for.
So there it was, the Kenterprise, an autonomous measuring vehicle that was neither autonomous nor measuring anything. Not much of a success as you can see. We got grilled during our final presentation. Luckily our professor acknowledge our heard work and still gave us an ok grade, worse than any other project group in the past few years but ok.
The 2020 Upgrade
I would consider calling this student project an absolute dumpster fire, but as the old saying goes: “the scars of a dumpster fire make you stronger”. This experience really helped me to appropriately scale my goals and stay focused in all of my following projects. I also still love the idea of an unmanned vehicle that can help biologists to do lake surveys and the general appeal of building a self driving boat. That is why now, one year later, I wanted to finish it using my newly gained FPV drone knowledge, the beautiful Open Source Project ArduPilot and the power of cheap electronics sites.
The goal was not to turn it into a fully fledged measuring boat, but to get all the systems up and running and install an autopilot. It does not have to be perfect. I just wanted to see this boat drive itself as a proof of concept.
I am then going to pass the WORKING autonomous boat on to the university for future projects such as mapping the seabed. By the way, I was not alone. My friend Ammar, who was also in the project group back in 2018 helped me with testing the boat.
Without further ado, lets get into it”