FEATURE | Demonstrator tug completes 1,000-nautical-mile voyage on fully autonomous mode

UNMANNED CRAFT WEEK
Photo: Sea Machines Robotics

US-based unmanned technology company Sea Machines Robotics​ has completed the world’s first 1,000-plus nautical miles autonomous and remotely commanded journey of a commercial vessel at sea. Under the project name The Machine Odyssey, the autonomous tug Nellie Bly completed its journey in just 129 operational hours over 13 days.

The program was commanded by US Coast Guard-licensed mariners remotely stationed 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometres) away in Boston, many of whom are also members of the American Maritime Officers union.

Photo: Sea Machines Robotics

“The completion of this voyage marks the catalyst for a new era of at-sea operations,” said Michael Johnson, CEO of Sea Machines. “Over the last two millennia it’s estimated that around one-hundred million vessels have transited these same Danish waters. Though vessels, cargos, nations and destinations have changed, the way these great ships are commanded has remained virtually constant, with humans onboard making navigational decisions, undertaking manual control actuation, and communicating person to person. Only now are we revealing a new method of operation.

“Remotely commanded autonomous vessels provide the marine industries with the platform necessary to be competitive in the modern world, delivering significant increases in productivity and operational safety, digitised ultra-efficiency and response speed, and will provide a new world of actionable operational data for improved planning and business practices. The Machine Odyssey signals the start of a new human-technology relationship propelling on-sea operations in the 21st century.”

Photo: Sea Machines Robotics

Nellie Bly employed first-of-it’s-kind AI-enabled, long-range computer vision and a sensor-to-propeller autonomy system in the form of Sea Machines’ SM300 autonomous command and control system. Its technical features allowed for path-planning, active domain perception, dynamic obstacle, and traffic avoidance and replanning, depth sensing, and fusion of vectored nautical chart data. Around 96.9 per cent of the 1,027 nautical mile journey was accomplished under fully autonomous control and the SM300 successfully executed 31 collision-avoidance and traffic separation maneuvers.

Using multi-sensor fusion, the system digitally perceived over 12,000 square miles (31,000 square kilometres) of ocean space more accurately and comprehensively than comparable human operators.

A team of USCG-licensed mariners remotely commanded Nellie Bly in Denmark from a control station located in Boston. Throughout the voyage, the tug averaged a speed of 7.9 knots. Sea Machines garnered 3.8TB of essential operational data showcasing how the ships can readily connect as IoT systems into the cloud economy.

The SM300 also provided the remote commanders in Boston with an active chart of the environment and live augmented overlays showing the progress of the mission, state of the vessel, situational awareness of the domain, real-time vessel-borne audio, and video from many streaming cameras.

“Autonomy is taking hold faster on the waterways than it is on roadways,” continued Johnson. “Our autonomous systems are already supporting vessel operations around the world in manned and unmanned capacities. We are rapidly retooling the marine industries with an advanced perception, self-piloting system, and connected vessel intelligence. The Machine Odyssey was a success and we believe we will soon see autonomy become commonplace.”

Photo: Sea Machines Robotics

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