FEATURE | Sea Machines and the autonomous workboats of the future

Graphic showing how Sea Machines' SM300 integrates with commercial vessels

US-based Sea Machines, an autonomous technology company that specialises in control technology for workboats and other commercial surface vessels, recently performed a successful test of its technology onboard a pollution control demonstration vessel in Portland Harbor.

Baird Maritime caught up with Sea Machines’ Business Development Manager Warren Freda to learn more about the demonstration and the potential of the technology.

How did Sea Machines become involved in the autonomous oil spill response project with MARAD? Were there any specific events or factors that led to its participation in the project?

Sea Machines has developed strong relationships with government customers in the US, such as the Department of Transportation

Maritime Administration (MARAD), and in other nations abroad. There is a strong push from the government sector to seek out technology innovations, such as autonomous marine systems, that can improve the safety and productivity of operations, while also giving countries a competitive edge.

In this case, MARAD sought out Sea Machines systems 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 vessels now.

What specific benefits does the project aim to provide?

Perhaps the biggest benefit this project provided was reinforcing the fact that marine autonomy is no longer a future concept for the commercial marine industry – it’s available now and already in use.

Industrial-grade joystick for remote-helm operations

There were many attendees of this event who didn’t realise how developed Sea Machines’ systems are and after seeing them in action, they understood that this is a reality for today’s operations and that this is the direction the industry is headed.

It was also proven during this project that Sea Machines’ autonomous marine systems benefit the commercial marine industry as a whole with new operational capabilities that increase the safety, productivity and predictability of work on the water.

What challenges did your team encounter in making the concept of autonomous oil spill response a reality? How did you overcome them?

One expected challenge we faced was during the installation phase. The Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC) skimmer vessel at the centre of this story is an actively working spill-response vessel and could only be taken out of service for a restricted number of hours each day.

This allowed it to remain available for activation in the event of a marine spill incident. During other installations that allow full access to the vessel, Sea Machines can typically integrate its SM300 system aboard in a week or less.

Because of these time constraints, this particular installation took longer. We of course supported this operational need completely and surmounted the challenge by dedicated as many resources as possible during the hours we had available to make the installation a success.

We understand your company’s SM300 autonomous command system was the first to be trialled as part of the project. What are the system’s features and capabilities? Were there any modifications incorporated into the standard system to make it suitable for oil spill response?

The SM300’s features include autonomous command from any location with internet access, such as a shoreside office or a second vessel; remote-helm control via industrial-grade beltpack; remote payload control of on-board equipment; collaborative autonomous operations; search-and-survey autonomous grid following; and obstacle detection and collision avoidance.

During the installation, we made a specific modification that enabled an operator to remote-command the on-board skimming equipment. Our computer system and beltpack can be custom programmed to engage a variety of sensors, cameras, tools and equipment on any given vessel.

Could you give us some details about the August 21 demonstration in Portland Harbor? What capabilities were tested? What objectives did you achieve?

In August, Sea Machines successfully demonstrated the capabilities of its SM300 autonomous-command and remote-control system in action aboard a Kvichak Marco skimmer boat, owned by MSRC, during events held along the harbour in Portland, Maine.

This deployment of the world’s first autonomous spill-response vessel, conducted primarily for the Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD), proved Sea Machines’ ability to increase the safety, productivity and predictability of response for marine oil-spill operations.

The on-water demonstrations took place aboard the world’s first autonomous spill response vessel – a Vigor/Kvichak Marine Industries-built skimmer boat, owned by Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC) – before a live audience of MARAD, government, naval, international, environmental and industry representatives.

The MSRC oil-spill response boat at the demonstration

“Response timing is critical,” commented MARAD Deputy Administrator Richard Balzano at the event. “The sooner we can get to a spill, the sooner we can corral it and control it, the less damage it will do.

“The technology we saw today is a clear example of how remote systems can help us be more efficient with that and respond quicker.

“This is very important. This is the future of our industry. If our industry is going to be competitive and safer and evolve, it has to look at remote technologies.”

“The use of autonomy allows us to keep people off the water as much as possible, which is an increase in safety,” added MSRC Vice President John Swift. “And the other consideration for the technology is fatigue.

“There are going to be times when we have to do crew changes; if we can reduce those, that keeps people safer. We think that’s the kind of technology we need to improve our safety.”

Sea Machines discussed how to operate the skimmer in an unmanned autonomous mode, which enables operators to respond to spill events 24/7 depending on recovery conditions, even when crews are restricted.

These configurations also reduce or eliminate exposure of crewmembers to challenging sea and weather, toxic fumes and other safety hazards.

Remote situational awareness was provided to the on-shore operator via several live camera views. In the event of a real activation, the skimmer could have also been outfitted with thermal and underwater cameras, environmental sensors and more.

What lessons did your team learn from your participation in the autonomous oil spill response project? Do you believe this could be applied in other types of autonomous vessel operations like surveying, firefighting, maritime security, etc?

One lesson learned from the event involved the weather. To fully comply with current US Coast Guard regulations, Sea Machines executed the demonstrations with crewmembers on board MSRC’s skimmer, even though the vessel was autonomously commanded and remote-controlled by a shoreside operator.

MSRC crewmember operating the remote control from the shore

Unfortunately, frequent lightning in the area stopped the demonstrations at least twice to ensure the crew’s safety. This is a common challenge across all marine sectors, not just spill response, and the lesson learned here is that unmanned operations (like those that Sea Machines enables) can continue through dangerous weather, during times of poor visibility and in challenging sea conditions.

Now that the technology has been successfully demonstrated in oil spill response applications, what specific future developments can the public expect from the project? Are there other upcoming trials or demonstrations of the technology?

Engaged audiences can expect more of these demonstrations. Sea Machines has several in the pipeline, with one dedicated to autonomous search-and-rescue this coming summer.

For that event, we’re partnering with Hike Metal, out of Ontario, to demonstrate the capabilities our system has in increasing the speed and safety of crews who save the lives of others on the water.

When do you intend to have this autonomous oil spill response technology see full operational use?

Though we hope a marine spill incident never occurs, Sea Machines technology is available now for installation aboard the commercial vessels responsible for the response. We’re here to support crews with systems that increase their safety and operational productivity and predictability.

Nelson E. Dela Cruz

Nelson Dela Cruz is Baird Maritime's Philippines correspondent and a former local facilitator of Interferry's FerrySafe project in Manila and Cebu.