Development Process

Where it all began...

In 2012 the Maritime RobotX Challenge was launched by the US Office of Naval Research. A joint Flinders University and Australian Maritime Collage was successful in applying to be part of the inaugral event and herein was born Topcat.

Hardware Design

Developing Topcat has been a very iterative process. The initial vessel design focussed on solving the 2014 RobotX challenge tasks including navigation, obstacle avoidance and docking. This was a great base but new and ongoing research tasks and challenges have necessitated continual upgrades for Topcat.

CAD Model

In order to successfully visualise and raidly implement system upgrades we developed a complete full CAD model. This was a long process but now significantly enhances any design work.

Software Design

Topcat's software started out with the simple tasks of controlling the vessel and avoiding basic obstacles. The systems have since been augmented to include new control algorithms, enhanced safety features, new sensor data, path planning algorithms, simple user interfacing and object recognition systems. This upgrade process has been made simpler by the use of ROS as a main architecture and the system modularity it allows.


Testing autonomous vehicles is always challenging. It is not only costly and difficult to organise. To help us with this challenge we developed a software vessel simulator using using Gazebo. This simulator has been invaluable to our development process and enabled us to confidently test new algorithms in the field.

Development Milestones

Early 2014

Initial vessel development

In early 2014 Australian Maritime College students developed and tested engine buoyancy systems and installed Torqeedo electric outboards. The vessel was then brought to Flinders University where students designed and built sensor mounting structures for LiDAR, Radar, GPS and camera systems. At the same time honours students were developing software systems to solve the challenges for RobotX 2014.

October 2014

Inaugral Maritime RobotX - Singapore

Topcat made it to the first Maritime RobotX challenge in October 2014. It was a rush to develop everything on time and not everything worked as planned but the experience was great. The team got to meet people from around the world who shared a passion for robotics. We just missed out on the finals but were awarded a special mention for our use of the boat as a research platform.

April 2015

Topcat demonstration

Shortly after SAAB Australia announced their Bonefish USV we were asked to demonstrate Topcat on the Port River for a news article. This was the first time Topcat operated in public access waters with shipping traffic. Although weather on the test day was horrible it was a successful demonstraion of the vessels ability to operate in a commercial area.

November 2015

Driverless Cars Conference

Yes we know, Topcat is a boat at a car conference! Nevertheless, we were asked to demonstrate the vessel on the Torrens River for the International Driverless Cars Conference. This was a great opportunity for us to meet industry leaders interested in autonomous technology and also great public exposure as the demonstration was in the middle of the city. It was also the first time Topcat operated in amongst rowers and paddlers.

February-July 2016

System upgrades

Throughout the first half of 2016 Topcat went through a major upgrade phase. New sensors, a new computer and electronic systems were added. The overall superstructure was redesigned, the batteries mounted in an underslung cradle and a steering system added. These upgrades were designed to prepare the vessel for ocean trials and the 2016 Maritime RobotX Challenge.

October-December 2016

Maritime RobotX 2 - Hawaii

Topcat has entered the 2016 Maritime RobotX Challenge in Hawaii. Preparations are in full swing, the hardware systems have been tested and software is well on its way. In just a few days we will be packing everything up and shipping it all! We are excited to participate again and look forward to the challenges this year's competition will bring!