At 16 feet long, the Minion autonomous surface vessel, designed by Embry-Riddle engineers, offers sophisticated navigation and control.
At 16 feet long, the Minion autonomous surface vessel, designed by Embry-Riddle engineers, offers sophisticated navigation and control. Photo: Robotics Association at Embry-Riddle

Students Debut One of the World's Most Sophisticated Autonomous Boats for its Size

On the edge of the Pacific Ocean near Honolulu this past December, an odd–looking, pilotless 16 ft.-long boat navigated an open water obstacle course, adapting to the waves and wind on the bay, launching and recovering a small submarine and then returning to dock. This boat, which did not have any place for passengers … or a driver, is called Minion. It was built by engineering student members of the Robotics Association at Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University and it is possibly one the most sophisticated self-driving boats in the world for its size.

Minion was created to compete in the Maritime Robot X Challenge, a weeklong biennial international competition co-sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Association of Unmanned Vehicles International (AUVSI)’s RoboNation and NAVATEK, a Hawaii-based company that designs ships and other amphibious vehicles.

Fifteen elite engineering student-led university teams from around the Pacific Rim took part in the competition using pontoon boats built on identical 16 ft. long Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel platforms. The goal was to create an autonomous surface vessel that could demonstrate navigation and control, obstacle avoidance, location and sequence, identification and docking, detection and delivery, underwater recovery and situational awareness, all without human or computer interaction as the boat traversed a course of seven increasingly difficult, maritime-related tests. 

Team Minion Shines in International Competition

The student team from Embry-Riddle that designed and built Minion won all five of the static judging awards at the Robot X Challenge – best journal paper, oral presentation, team video, team website and system inspection. The team finished third overall, besting international teams from China, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and Singapore and was the highest scoring team of the seven universities from the U.S. The National University of Singapore took this year's top prize, while Australia's Queensland University of Technology placed second.

“Many of the competition judges from the ONR, industry and academia let us know how impressed they were with our boat’s systems and with our team,” said Dr. Eric Coyle, one of four faculty advisors for Team Minion. “Our students were also recognized several times throughout the week of competition for helping other teams with technical and equipment issues.”

Embry-Riddle is one of the few schools in the world to compete at such a technologically advanced level in the Maritime Robot X Challenge and in other international autonomous vehicle events, such as the Roboboat and RoboSub collegiate competitions. Building on the team’s success at past competitions is one of the reasons the Office of Naval Research awarded Embry-Riddle a five-year, $900,000 research grant in 2017 to continue developing advanced communication, perception and energy systems for unmanned surface vessels.

A student-led Embry-Riddle team won five “static judging” awards in the 2019 Maritime Robot X Challenge and finished third overall for the self-driving Minion boat.
A student-led Embry-Riddle team won five “static judging” awards in the 2019 Maritime Robot X Challenge and finished third overall for the self-driving Minion boat. Photo: Robotics Association at Embry-Riddle.

“Minion is an outstanding platform for applying our research into autonomous systems toward real-world applications,” said David Thompson, team lead and Ph.D. candidate in Mechnical Engineering. “For many of our undergrads, working on Minion for the past two years has been a great resume builder and the ability to network at the competition has led to jobs for many of our team members.”

You can learn more about Minion and the talented team that put it together at

Team Minion included team leaders Jefferson Romney and David Thompson, with Nicholas Middlebrooks, Nate Bloom, Marco Shoener, James Hendrickson, Grady Delp, Stephen Cronin, Matthew Helms and Jamie Barnes. Faculty advisors from the College of Engineering at the Daytona Beach Campus included Eric Coyle, Patrick Currier and Charles Reinholtz from the Mechanical Engineering Department and Brian Butka from the Department of Electrical, Computer, Software and Systems Engineering.

The Robotics Association at Embry-Riddle (RAER) is a student organization that is pushing the boundaries of what is possible in unmanned systems. RAER supports seven collegiate robotics teams at the Daytona Beach Campus that compete around the world, across the domains of land, sea and air. RAER also provide outreach and support to K-12 students in the community, inspiring them to pursue their own paths through STEM education.

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Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is the world’s largest, oldest and most comprehensive institution specializing in aviation, aerospace, engineering and related degree programs. A fully accredited university, Embry-Riddle is also a major research center, seeking solutions to real-world problems in partnership with the aerospace industry, other universities and government agencies. A nonprofit, independent institution, Embry-Riddle offers more than 100 associate, baccalaureate, master’s and Ph.D. degree programs in its colleges of Arts & Sciences, Aviation, Business, Engineering and Security & Intelligence. The university educates students at residential campuses in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Prescott, Ariz., through its Worldwide Campus with more than 135 locations in the United States, Europe and Asia, and through online programs. For more information, visit, follow us on Twitter (@EmbryRiddle) and, and find expert videos at