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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