17 February 2021
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To date, much of the focus on autonomous technology has centred on vehicles designed primarily to operate in the air or on land. But the same innovations are soon set to make big waves in the maritime world.

One of the often-celebrated benefits of autonomous technology is that it can enable machines to augment the work that’s currently done by humans. One field to which such advances are perfectly suited is data acquisition, where drones can lower the cost of exploratory expeditions by alleviating the needs of a human crew. This can, in turn, extend the duration that a vessel can remain at sea and thereby increase the amount of data gathered in each expedition.

Innovation, ahoy!

One company which is attempting to put this theory into practice is Saildrone. Their global fleet of wind- and solar-powered sea drones operate both above and below the waves in order to collect high-resolution data in real time. This data is used to power highly accurate weather maps, which can be used to help navigate ships across the oceans.

Another exciting venture is Mayflower 400, which is aiming to be the world's first full-sized unmanned ship to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. As you might have guessed, the autonomous Mayflower is named after the 17th century ship which set sail on its fateful journey from Plymouth to Massachusetts on 6 September 1620, with 102 passengers and around 30 crew members.

The modern Mayflower is scheduled to repeat the historic journey at some point in 2021, after an earlier attempt in Autumn 2020 was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When they finally receive the ‘go ahead’, the journey should take just two weeks and, unlike the original voyage, this autonomous Mayflower will be absent of any passengers or crew. Onboard systems will enable the ship to scan the horizon for possible hazards and then make any course adjustments needed to complete the voyage.

This modern reimagining of the Mayflower will act as a testbed for the associated autonomous navigational systems, allowing future vessels to spend extended durations out at sea, gathering data. Ultimately, these future vessels will provide a more cost-effective way of studying some of the ecological issues which affect our seas and oceans, including global warming, ocean plastic pollution and marine mammal conservation.

The Naviator is another autonomous drone capable of collecting maritime data, but on a much smaller scale. The Naviator is designed so that it can fly just as easily as it can swim. This versatility enables the Naviator to gather critical information about structures that extend both above and below the water line, such as piers, ships, rigs, and docks.

The oil and gas industry has been quick to adopt the use of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), especially for inspecting and maintaining subsea structures. This is particularly important for many of the offshore platforms in and around the UK, which are coming towards the end of their operating life. This technology has also found use in offshore wind facilities, where there is a significant overlap in the need for routine monitoring of maritime structures.

Autonomous vehicles, or AUVs, are starting to replace the more conventional ROVs. The lack of a communication tether means that AUVs tend to exhibit increased manoeuvrability, endurance and operating range compared to the traditional ROVs, which makes them more flexible and simpler to operate. As an example of this technology, Saab AB’s sabertooth AUV can perform routine site inspections without any input from a human. In this way, the AUVs can be used by a broader range of users to perform a greater variety of subsea operations. This then frees up the experienced ROV pilots to focus on more difficult maintenance work.

It’s not just data gathering which is experiencing a sea change in innovation. The winds of change may now be blowing through the commercial shipping sector, with the successful completion of the NYK sea trials. This autonomously navigated voyage of a 71,000-ton NYK vessel from Xinshia, China, to Nagoya in Japan took three days to complete, and helped demonstrate the potential of this technology for commercial shipping. Kongsberg Maritime are also developing an electric autonomous vessel which will connect warehouses on the west of the Oslo fjord with a distribution centre on the east shore (for more on the growing use of electrical power in the shipping industry, see our blog Turning the tide). When fully operational in 2022, these roll-on, roll-off vessels will provide a direct route across the fjord for cargo lorries, thereby removing millions of journeys from a heavily trafficked section of road.

Further afield, a project by ABB is aiming to develop a ship capable of autonomous tug operations. Upon completion, the autonomous tugboat will perform navigational tasks in a designated area of the Port of Singapore, which will allow it to learn how to safely navigate vessels across the sea in a variety of conditions. Tugboats are used, typically, to manoeuvre other vessels into crowded ports and harbours. They must often travel great distances across open water to reach their operating destination. By navigating the tugboat autonomously during periods of open water transit, it’s thought that this will enable the onboard crew to rest so that they can be alert for when they are required to take over control of the vessel.

Propelling forward

There is hope that significant cost reductions can be realised by deploying autonomous technology more widely across the maritime industries. Autonomous navigation and control systems are expected to make fewer mistakes than human controllers, as well as achieving more efficient use of fuel and space in the ever more crowded shipping lanes.

As eluded above, it may be possible to operate maritime vessels entirely without any crew. This would remove the need to provide onboard life support systems, thereby increasing a vessel’s operating efficiency and significantly decreasing its construction costs. It’s hoped that such developments will help to ameliorate the growing maritime skills shortage, by removing workers from hazardous ‘at-sea’ environments. Instead, workers could be redeployed onshore where they can monitor and, if necessary, control the vessels from much less choppy surroundings.  

Chris has experience of drafting and prosecuting patent applications across a variety of materials science and engineering fields. He has also gained direct experience of the management of a large patent portfolio, whilst on secondment in the patent department of a UK automotive manufacturer.

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