As you’re reading this article a seven-foot craft launched from California is cruising slowly across the Pacific, near the North Island of New Zealand. What’s remarkable about this boat, named SeaCharger, is that it has no crew and is completely autonomous.
Autonomous navigation is exciting technology. There are now Google self-driving cars and drones, so why not boats? Boaters don’t have to deal with changing lanes, but there are host of other complications that make self-driving boats extremely complex: sea state, wind, other boats, outdated chart data, and corrosion issues, to name a few.
Basic self-steering in the form of the autopilot has been widely available for decades, and the technology is constantly evolving and improving. However, complete autonomy is a major change and requires integrating many technologies to rival a Captain’s navigation skills. A truly autonomous boat needs:
- GPS – position data to track current position and direction
- Satellite communications - to update or send instructions to the boat
- AIS - to track the positions of other vessels, and avoid collisions
- Wind sensors - to detect direction and strength for course adjustments
- A CPU ‘brain’ - to take the data inputs and convert them into action
- Autopilot - to control steering and/or adjust sail sheets
Many pioneers and hobbyists have been trying to crack the challenge of ocean crossings with model boats, testing out these technologies at small scale. SeaCharger has racked up over five months in the water and traveled roughly 6,500 nautical miles. Scout Transatlantic traveled 1,300 miles across the Atlantic before losing contact. And the Micro Transat challenge is a yearly race in which six teams compete using different and novel designs.
All of them, however, have ultimately fallen short of their quest.
So is it feasible for larger or manned boats to succeed, where these model craft have failed? Beyond the realm of hobbyists and model races, several organizations are working on full-scale prototypes to test the waters.
Yamaha is developing a prototype named the Breeze10. The purpose is for commercial surveying and surveillance in the water, oil, and gas industries. It uses global navigation satellite system GNSS positioning data and azimuth angle data. Navigational routes can be saved, which allows it to follow the exact same route multiple times. Imagine it as the marine equivalent of the Roomba vacuum, able to do this dull yet dangerous work with greater efficiency than a manned vessel.
ASV Global, a manufacturer of Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs for short) is building a range of boats to suit different applications. They have completed over 1,000 days of unmanned operations and the ASV Global C-Worker 5 successfully navigated the seas around the Isle of Wight in the UK, without assistance.
In the transportation sector, a consortium of researchers is working on autonomous boats in Amsterdam. Called ‘Roboat,’ they’re aiming to create a fleet of boats that can move people and goods around the city. And of course, the US military is also getting in on the act. The research agency DARPA has been working on an experimental self-driving warship called the Sea Hunter, which is designed to hunt enemy submarines. The 132-foot-long unarmed prototype is designed to cruise on the ocean’s surface for several months at a time—without a crew or anyone controlling it remotely. Sea Hunter uses radar and AIS to find its bearings and keep clear of other vessels. Their goal is to have ships like this operating on a range of missions, with limited human supervision.
The Sea Hunter is undergoing two years of testing. The initial focus is to ensure that it can use radar and cameras to avoid other vessels, but the goal is to deploy the boat on patrol within five years. They’re also testing smaller boats that can ‘swarm’ around a target. Not to be outdone, the British Royal Navy has developed a 32-foot futurist-looking speedboat with the exciting name Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST). This boat, which would not be out of place in a Batman movie, is capable of 50 knots and can be operated autonomously or via remote control.
These advancements represent a tipping point, from experimental backyard projects to practical use. The idea of saying ‘Siri, please chart a course for the San Juan Islands’ feels almost within reach, and it’s going to be fun to watch this technology evolve. In the meantime, we’ll still be able to enjoy the thrill of life at the helm.