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A conversation with Kevin Morin about the MarkSetBots

by David Schmidt 16 Jun 16:00 BST June 16, 2020
MarkSetBots in use at the final SailGP Season 1 event off of Marseille, France in September, 2019 © Image courtesy of MarkSetBot

When I first heard of MarkSetBots a handful of years ago, my initial impression was that these self-propelled and GPS-guided racing marks could significantly ease the workload for Race Committees. Should the wind shift or the tide change, as it's wont to do on racecourses around the globe, the RC could just tap a few virtual buttons on a smartphone and quickly square-up a course.

Having run and managed my share racecourses during my college days, this technology seemed like a miracle cure in terms of keeping courses fair and square and also reducing the number of powerboats needed to properly manage a race.

While these benefits sounded impressive years ago, they take on an entirely different meaning as the world grapples with the novel coronavirus, and as the sailing community struggles to find ways to race sailboats in safe and socially distanced ways.

Others clearly had similar thoughts, and in early June MarkSetBot and US Sailing announced a collaboration that's aimed at employing these clever devices to help sailors get back to the game we all love most, sans unnecessary risk for race committees or course-setting officials.

I checked in with Kevin Morin, the founder and creator of MarkSetBot, via email, to learn more about this technology and how it can help enable racing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

MarketSetBots (MSBs) seem perfect for the COVID-19 era, but if I'm correct, the technology has existed for a few years. Can you give us a timeline of when you developed MSBs?

We started developing the MarkSetBot in January 2014. We had a working prototype in 18 months (middle of 2015). We then refined the design and code over two years until we felt that we were ready for a public beta.

We had six U.S. clubs join the beta in 2017. Our patent came through in 2018, and we sold our first units in early 2018.

At this point, we have invested over 5,000 hours on R&D and have a really neat product to show for the hard work that the team has put in.

What was the original intention of MSBs?

I started working on the Bots to solve the challenge of shifty wind on an inland lake that I sail on. I created a Facebook page early on that has allowed us to gather feedback from thousands of people around the globe.

We regularly hear about challenges people face when setting marks. The most common are shifty wind, deep water, challenging currents, volunteer shortages, motor boat issues, and sustainability concerns.

In 2020, the number-one question has been around how to run races in a socially distant way.

Can you tell us how MSBs can help keep race committee officials (including volunteers/professionals on mark boats) safe during COVID-19?

Simply, MarkSetBots make social distancing easier by reducing the number of people necessary to run a race. Our Bots are self-propelled and use no anchors to hold position. Setting and repositioning them is as simple as a swipe on your phone.

[MSBs] can be set from the water or on shore. In fact, we've seen a single person both set the course and officiate the race.

With a little creativity, you can run an entire course without a race committee.

Can you tell us about MSBs recently announced partnership with US Sailing? Also, how do you think this partnership will benefit sailors?

Our goal with the partnership with US Sailing is to make our Bots accessible to every club. We want to help clubs and sailors start racing again.

Many clubs have voiced that they are not intending to run races this year. The partnership is focused on providing a solution to those clubs so that everyone can get out on the water (in a safe way).

What kinds of races are MSBs ideally suited for?

The Bots have been used in many different situations: point-to-point races, windward-leeward races, high-school races, match races, and stadium races.

The ability to turn a course axis effortlessly is why people like it. The best example of this was in a high school regional qualifier, which had a Digital N course on a very shifty lake. We did more than 125 mark changes in one day and got 75 races off. The first leg of every race was square despite the wind shifting constantly.

The PRO estimated that we got in 25 more races than would have otherwise been possible.

I live in an area with strong tides—what kinds of limitations do MSBs have in terms of positive/negative water flow? And are there some areas where MSBs work better than others?

The Bots have a max speed of four knots. In places with lots of current, this can be a deal breaker.

We have been working on a faster version and were able to get the latest prototype up to five knots. Our hope is to get the Bots going eight knots in the next 12 months.

All that said, people in places with extreme current like the Solent (which can see five knots of current) have no choice but to schedule their races during periods of less flow because most sailboats aren't able to go fast enough to overcome five knots of current. They just don't sail when it is really ripping.

Are MSBs also equipped with AIS transponders or big-boat racing? Or are they more orientated towards dinghy/small-boat racing?

We haven't done anything with AIS transponders, but we do have a way to broadcast lat/long of all marks to participants' cell phones.

We have also used YachtBot hardware to broadcast lat/long to the SailGP F50s and race committee. I am sure we will have a client that wants us to integrate AIS transponders in the next 12 months.

Do MSBs also represent a way that regatta organizers can reduce their CO2 emissions? From where I sit, it looks as though a MSB uses significantly less power to transport itself around a racecourse than a RIB with big outboards—is this correct? Also, as a corollary benefit to adopters of this technology, are MSBs less expensive to operate over the long haul than a RIB or two?

A third party recently did an environmental study comparing Bots vs RIBs at different types of regattas. The bottom line is that the Bots are substantially better for the environment. A Bot costs around $.50 to charge, which is significantly less than fuel for a RIB.

Since the study was completed, we switched our charging setup at the shop over to solar, and we can now run a zero-emission regatta.

We did a research study looking at budgets of different clubs. The average club spends $150/day per mark boat (taking in to account all the associated costs like maintenance expenses and fuel). The lowest we found was $125/day and the highest $400/day. Assuming you have two RC boats normally, that works out to between $250 and $800 a day.

Even if you are only running one race per week, it makes financial sense to switch to MarkSetBots.

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

Having poured a huge amount of time in to designing and perfecting the Bots, it is pretty exciting to see them take off around the globe.

Our goal for this decade is for MarkSetBot to supersede the traditional mark as the standard for sailboat racing worldwide. We have a long way to go, but are confident we will get there.

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