After a year lost at sea, Ada the SailBot is coming home

When her phone woke her early one morning, Vivian Cheung didn’t think much of it — and she definitely wasn’t going to wake up to answer. But then, a thought snuck into her mind: what if Ada had been found?

“Being Ada's mom, you assume she is still out there. You have hope,” said Cheung.

A few hours later, an email confirmed Cheung’s wildest dreams — Ada had been found. Ada was coming home.

On August 24, 2016, Ada, an autonomously sailing robot designed and built by a team of UBC students, set out to be the first boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean completely autonomously.

After the launch, the team watched with hope as Ada’s GPS signal sailed closer and closer to Europe. In London, Cheung and fellow UBC SailBot team member Cody Smith prepared for Ada’s arrival. But then, four days after leaving Newfoundland, Ada wandered off course in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The team kept hoping she’d turn east and continue on her way to Europe, but she never did.

The team watched helplessly as Ada drifted further and further off course until November 14, when Ada’s GPS stopped sending GPS heartbeats back to the team. The record-setting voyage was over and Ada was lost at sea.

The team returned to Vancouver to work on Ada 2.0, a boat they hope to race from Victoria to Maui, Hawaii.

Cheung, who has since graduated, never lost hope in finding Ada again. But as the months rolled by, Smith left SailBot to join a different design team and work on his mechanical engineering degree.

“I hoped for it [finding Ada]. I didn’t think it would ever happen,” said Smith.

When they found out that Ada had been found off the coast of Florida by the Neil Armstrong, an American research vessel, Cheung and Smith were shocked and excited.

“I was in disbelief. She's been on her own for one and a half years,” said Cheung.

The Neil Armstrong noticed an unidentifiable object in the early morning on December 1, 2017 and changed course to investigate. Seeing Ada’s name and research vessel label, Dr. Jennifer Miksis-Olds, a research scientist on board, googled Ada. When she read Ada’s story, the team scrambled to get in touch with UBC and rescue Ada.

Miksis-Olds chronicled the rescue in a blog post and the Armstrong’s captain sent an email to SailBot describing Ada’s recovery.

Cheung jumped into action to organize Ada’s return to campus. Backed by financial support from the university, Smith and another former SailBot team member, Dave Tiessen, flew out to Massachusetts to meet the Armstrong on its return home to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod.

“She’s been battered, she’s been through a lot, but she’s still alive,” said Smith, describing seeing Ada for the first time in over a year.

According to Smith, Ada is missing her mast and suffered some bumps and scrapes but is otherwise intact. It appears no water breached her hull so the electronics that serve as Ada’s eyes, ears, navigation system and brain should be in tact.

In-between sending near constant updates and photos to team members at UBC, Smith and Tiessen constructed a cradle to carry Ada back to Vancouver. In the new year, a truck will drive the 5,226 kilometres from Woods Hole to Point Grey, finally returning Ada home.

The SailBot team hopes to collect data from Ada to determine what went wrong. When Ada originally floated off course, the team guessed something was wrong with the rudder. Smith said it was too early to say for sure, but once Ada is back at UBC, he’s hopeful they will be able to determine the exact cause of Ada’s failure.

Cheung and Smith both hope Ada will eventually be displayed somewhere — possibly on campus, at Science World or at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. SailBot’s hope is for Ada to serve as inspiration for others to dream big and build those dreams into reality.