This article also appears in
Subscribe now »

Sea Machines demonstrates self-driving boats and ships

Sea Machines Robotics is developing autonomous technologies that it believes will revolutionize the marine sector, enabling smarter, safer and more efficient operations via self-aware and self-driving boats and ships.

“The transition of one of the world’s oldest forms of transportation to autonomous operation is inevitable and necessary,” said Michael Johnson, founder of the Boston-based startup. “Sea Machines provides systems that give real and immediate value to vessel operators by increasing safety and efficiency. And our technology will facilitate entirely new oceanic applications, enabling better use of the seas to accommodate a growing world.”

Founded in 2013, Sea Machines develops advanced control systems for boats and ships and specialized unmanned surface vessels. The technology can be deployed as an autonomous “overwatch” system on manned vessels. A Remote Command System, called RC-NXT, provides PLC-based wireless control of a vessel and is suitable for day-vessel operations such as work boats, tugs, and launches operating within 1000 m (3280 ft) of the pilot. With the RC-NXT upgrade kit, full manual controls of the vessel are retained and rapid transition between remote and traditional operations is possible.

An Autonomous Navigation System, called DP-NXT, uses vessel-based sensors—inertial navigation system/GPS, 4G radar, AIS (automatic identification system), EO/IR camera, sonar—and proprietary algorithms to enable watercraft to self-motor from point-to-point while avoiding active and passive obstacles or collaborate in tandem with another vessel.

DP-NXT is currently offered for vessels up to 24 m (80 ft) in length but can be configured for larger craft operations. The system can be integrated to various propulsion and steering configurations including electric, gas/diesel, diesel-electric, inboard, outboard, sterndrive, and water jet and can be augmented by maneuvering thrusters.

Sea Machines is currently testing its technology on commercial vessels in Boston Harbor where remote piloting of an unmanned vessel, unmanned oil spill response, and autonomous waypoint navigation have already been demonstrated. Upcoming demonstrations include collaborative multi-vessel operations and automated obstacle avoidance.

The company believes the marine domain is even better suited for autonomous systems than aerospace, automotive and off-highway sectors. Why? Fewer barriers to entry, a high risk operating environment, and an accommodating regulatory space make marine ripe for a transition to highly automated operation.

With more than 20 million vessels plying the world’s waters including 15 million recreational boats and 100,000 cargo ships, Sea Machines foresees autonomy disrupting this largely manual sector and developing into a $60 billion space.

This vision includes eliminating everyday boating accidents and shipwrecks via self-aware, self-driving navigation; increasing commercial marine productivity by automating vessel tasks; furthering safety of personnel by using unmanned vessels to perform work in hazardous environments like oil spills, marine firefighting, or other high risk operations; and enabling new remote oceanic industries such as deep sea fish farming and clean energy production.

Continue reading »