Autonomous vessels—coming on strong or too risky?

By Jim Fullilove
MEJ Editor

You’ve had a successful day fishing the canyons offshore and now you’re heading back home. It’s late in the afternoon but there’s still enough light to see the harbor entrance several miles ahead. Boat traffic is building--mostly small craft tracking here and there. The vessels are low in the water. Running lights are on and radar antennas, domes and a variety of sensors rise from arches and pedestals. Many of the boats have solar panels but not pilothouses nor wind screens. They don’t need them--no one is aboard. Welcome to the world of autonomous vessels.

Autonomous vessel technology was very much in evidence at the International WorkBoat Show in New Orleans last week. The technology has been around and in the development cooker for years, although now things are heating up. That’s not to say owners are lining up in droves to buy one or that there are many fully autonomous working boats are ready for prime time just yet. But some companies and the US Maritime Administration are pushing the technology hard—and making progress.

Currently, autonomous boats undergoing research tests and sea trials have someone on board—referred to as "a man in the loop” to keep tabs on things and intercede if necessary. There are also procedures and systems for remote control of the vessel from other boats in the area or from shore.

One of the players in the technology is Sea Machines. CEO Michael Johnson told an audience at the WorkBoat Show that autonomous vessels are ideal for jobs that are "dirty, dull or dangerous.” He listed spill response skimmers, hydrographic survey vessels and fire boats as examples.

Live demo
In an interesting demo, an operator at a console on the show floor created a waypoint track that resembled a farm tractor plowing a field in a serpentine pattern and put a workboat off Boston through its paces, including collision avoidance. The onboard crewman stood inside the pilothouse monitoring conventional navigation displays.

Sea Machines recently partnered with Metal Shark, a builder of aluminum boats. The result was the Sharktech 29 Defiant, an autonomous monohull sporting Sea Machines technology that allows traditional manning or unmanned operation. The 29-footer with these capabilities is available for sale.

WorkBoat magazine reported that "This relationship came about earnestly because sea Machines and Metal Shark share the mutual goal of bringing advanced autonomous marine technology to the market now,” according to Sea Machines VP Don Black. "One of the reasons Metal shark chose to work with us was because we are one of the few companies that has autonomous marine systems commercially and readily available—meaning we have systems in stock, ready for installation on all types of workboats and a variety of commercial and government vessels now.”

WorkBoat described SharkTech’s approach this way: "Beyond simple waypoint navigation or the execution of pre-programmed mission routes, Sharktech’s ASView onboard digital control system features a collision avoidance system with decision-making capability. The system allows for autonomous or remote operation of navigation and safety lighting, hailers and sires, pumps and other components. It also permits the integration and autonomous or remote operation of a near-infinite range of specialized equipment, including fire pumps, monitors . . . hydrographic survey equipment . .  . and the full spectrum of FLIRs (thermal imagers) and other specialty cameras.”

The military and Coast Guard are interested in the technology as well for drug interdiction and combat roles. An official from the US Maritime Administration ticked down a list of uses for autonomous technology onboard and dockside that would save lives and money and help fill "jobs” that are now going begging due to workforce shortages.

Too many downsides?
Just when will autonomous vessels be a fixture on the world maritime and boating scene? Some say never, at least for large commercial ships. One critic is Coast Guard Commander David Dubay, a professor at the US Naval War College. In a paper focused on ocean-going ships, he says autonomous vessels are too vulnerable to collision risks, legal liabilities and environmental calamities and require crewmen to be aboard. He singles out attacks by hackers, terrorists and criminals as the most serious concern.

Dubay’s conclusion: "The challenge in designing autonomous vessels is building both a safe and secure system that will function effectively in all ocean and maritime conditions without human beings on board and one that is not capable of being exploited by bad actors. Such a system, even if possible to build, would likely be too expensive for companies to build and operate compared to human crew.”

Who’s right? What about smaller coastal vessels that work for a living and recreational boats? Time will tell. Meantime, we’ll keep you posted on how the technology is unfolding—and who’s winning.

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Comments | Leave a Comment
Page 1 of 3 ( 13 comments)

Jp:(8/11/2018 5:28:29 PM) "I have a 2018 Yamaha f40 la and Humminbird helix 7 di , I would like to leverage the nema 2000 capability of the helix 7 to display engine info, what do I need , Humminbird does have a gateway and lowrance makes a Yamaha nema cable, but I'm reading connectors are proprietary . How can I get what is needed?

Since these products are not NMEA 2000 certified there is little assurance that they will share data with each other.

1. Here is the link to see all NMEA 2000 certified products:

2. The NMEA 2000 cables and connectors are from many manufacturers: Here is the link for approved cables and connector manufacturers:

AC/DC grounding distance:(8/2/2018 1:29:35 AM) "What about the grounding points of AC /DC systems? can they be grounded at the same point?
If one system has both AC and DC can they both be grounded to a common buss-bar that has only one conection to the hull?

Here's what Ed Sherman, electric tech guru at the American Boat & Yacht Council, said:

The ultimate goal should always be to tie ac and dc grounds together on board at a single point. In ABYC Standard E-11, it is described as “the engine negative terminal or its buss.” It is most commonly done at a buss."
Hard-Over with Brushed APilot Pump:(12/18/2017 5:37:05 PM) "Jim.
What do you mean by ...."Garmin GHP 20 with SmartPump...Because it is a brushless system, it is fail-safe and won’t execute a hard-over turn the way a brushed pump can."

Thanks for the note. Since the description came from Garmin I contacted the company for an explanation. Here's what one of their engineers told me:

On brushed DC actuators, a single-point failure in the drive circuit (shorted wire or blown component inside the controller) could cause the motor to run full speed in one direction and take the rudder all the way to one rail. A brushless actuator relies on timing-controlled commutation, so a short or component fail would cause the actuator to stop moving rather than moving at full speed.

Hope this helps,

trawlerdeejay:(10/13/2017 3:46:51 PM) "Excellent article. I had no idea what the differences were between o183 and 2000, Thank you so much."
Darryl:(3/27/2017 10:17:15 PM) "Putting the MSRP with each unit reviewed would have been helpful. If each unit was actually tested, the reports on each unit would have been helpful too.

Thanks Darryl---we generally don't mention prices due to confusion over so many variations---MSRP (mfg. suggested retail price), MAP (min. advertised price), MRP (min. resale price) and then there are internet prices on some websites that go their own way. But your point is well taken--buyers need to know if something is in their price range. We'll work on it.
There is independent testing of some of these products on sites like but the information we receive from manufacturers rarely cites the results of any shootouts they may conduct against the competition's products. "
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