UF students sailed their first self-steering boat across Lake Wauburg on Saturday.

Zach Goins and his team of nine students started building the robot about six months ago, working on it at the Machine Intelligence Lab at UF on Gale Lemerand Drive. The boat, called the NaviGator, senses its environment using radar and makes navigation decisions based on what it detects, without any human interaction.

The lab received $250,000 in funding to build the NaviGator along with two other robots, which are still being built, said Eric Schwartz, the project coordinator for the NaviGator. 

Funding comes from Harris Corporation, a technology company, as well as UF’s College of Engineering, he said. With this funding, the NaviGator uses computer vision methods to analyze its surroundings and chart a course while in the water.

“We have to teach the robot to think like humans do and react to its environment like we would,” said Goins, a UF finance senior, said. “There’s a lot more that your brain does that you don’t realize, and we had to make the robot think like a brain would.”

The groups will enter the robot in its first competition, the Maritime Robotx Challenge, in December, the 22-year-old said. The team of 10 will travel to Hawaii to compete.

Schwartz said the boat is the biggest robot UF students have ever built.

“You hear about (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), but I’ll put our students against MIT students for building something, and we would win,” Schwartz said. “Our students can get their hands dirty.”

He said he thinks the group will win the competition.

“This is something that can make (UF) more noticed than it already is,” Schwartz said.

He said students who worked on the NaviGator, as well as other projects he supervises, learn a lot from working in the Machine Intelligence Lab.

“A lot of the guys at my lab, they leave and get whatever job they want,” he said.

He said students have submitted submarines to Robotx challenges in previous years. Last year, a submarine won second place. Over the last 18 years, students have claimed first place three times.

“It’s a great job to be an engineer,” he said.

Andy Gray, the student lead of the lab and a 32-year-old second-year electrical and computer engineering graduate student, said he learned a lot by working in the Machine Intelligence Lab. 

“Traditionally in class you’re taught the theory, but with this, you take it to the next level,” he said.

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