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Olin Device Helps Visually Impaired Sailors Navigate Competitions

For the fourth year in a row, a team of Olin College students have been working on new technology to help blind sailors involved in a Match Racing brave the Charles River on their own.

Traditionally, in Match Racing blind sailors are accompanied by a sighted guide, telling them when to turn, stop and the location of any obstacles and competitors. With the Olin device, the sailors will be able to do this navigation on their own.

The project started in 2013 when Bill Rapp, a sighted guide who worked with the Carroll School’s SAILBLIND organization, attended an Olin Robotic Sailing Competition in Gloucester. He was intrigued by the autonomous sailboats and wondered if they could be incorporated into blind competition sailing by allowing blind sailors to sail without the aide of a sighted person.

Eventually Rapp connected with Olin College Distinguished Research Scientist in Residence Alex Morrow and various other Olin professors, Olin students, blind sailors, and high school volunteers, who took on the project with enthusiasm. It hasn’t always been easy. There was a carpenter ant infestation in 2014 that rotted a boat mast and more than a few pieces of equipment fell victim to water damage.  

This year, Morrow together with Olin students Onur Talu, Rowan Sharman and Yichen Jiang are working on simplifying the siren technology and removing the use of mercury from sensors on the tact indicators.

Mercury is toxic to humans and has been phased out of most equipment since the 1990s. A tact indicator senses which tack the boat is on by checking the angle of the boom and the deck. The boom tilts with the wind, and if it bends far enough to the left or right, it trips the mercury strip and lets out a loud tone to let sailors know which boat has the right of way, and if they need to adjust their own position. The team is replacing the mercury sensors with an accelerometer, which plays tones based instead on what side of the indicator gravity is the heaviest.

The team also worked on the simplification of the buoy system. The old buoy sensors sat in a metal box that had to be opened with a screwdriver--a box that, oddly given the boat’s location-- wasn’t even waterproof. The sensors also ran on Duracell batteries that had to be checked with a multimeter. “Inside that is the radio, and inside that is a series of little 1995 relays, which take the radio signal and turn it into a relay which can go on and off on a cycle, which sets off the sirens,” Alex Morrow said.

When testing this system last year, however, that box would fail almost every time. “We were frequently taking an hour out of sailing time, getting it back into operation again, so that was not a good thing,” said Morrow. The new sensors sit in a waterproof plastic box that can be opened easily with plastic clips. The top of the box is also equipped with a button that need only be pressed once to check the charge of the battery.  “It has a blue light to show the battery is okay. And if the blue light goes out when you push it, you know the battery has to be recharged. So now you don’t have to open the thing at all, you can just take that waterproof unit, leave it inside the buoy, and store them in the boathouse.” These improved boxes also don’t leave the radios running, a problem that occurred in the old system, and caused the current to drain.

The improvements are extensive, but the team says that their focus has always been on creating a system for visually impaired sailors to race each other with independence. “We really just cleaned up the way the thing was set up. Same basic idea - we’re still just turning a siren on and off, but now we can just use electronics to make the process much more simple.”

Photos: Adam Gallagher