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Autonomous Ships

Cars that drive themselves have been around for years. So it is a no brainer that boats would one day be driving themselves. In fact, they have been doing short trip across rivers and bays for quite a while. Unmanned underwater exploration vessels have been prowling under the seas in search of unknown scientific informatin in world here to fore not accessible to man. So, it was only a matter of time that vessels would be crossing the ocean autonomously or unmanned.

A non-profit company in Britain known as ProMare working with IBM, has produced a new autonomous vessel called Mayflower. The launch, scheduled for Sept 16, 2020, at Portsmouth in England. Symbolic because it is the same port the first Mayflower, left from on its maiden voyage to America in 1620.
Donald Scott, director of engineering at a subsidiary of Submergence Group and working with ProMare said “When we kicked off this project, we were very naïve about how complicated it would be,” recalls Scott. “We keep peeling back layers of the onion to find new challenges – luckily, IBM has usually thought of them first, and already come up with solutions. We have no doubt that working with IBM has dropped years from the timeline for MAS. Specifically, IBM PowerAI Vision enables us to build larger, more accurate models and get them into production fast.”
One of the main reasons unmanned boats are desired is they can be smaller and still deliver the same payload because they do not need to accommodate a crew. An article in the Wall Street Journal by Christopher Mims, August 29th, 2020, pointed out that a 200-foot-long vessel can be replaced by a 30-foot-long vessel, if it is unmanned. This elimination of crew space, living, sleeping, eating and food storage provides a huge saving in fuel and building costs.
A company called Sea Kit International released this on Friday August 14, 2020, “SEA-KIT’s 40 foot uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV) “Maxlimer” returned to Plymouth on Friday 14 August after 22 days of remote survey operations on Europe’s continental margin. Since late July, the USV has mapped over 1000sq km of ocean floor, controlled around-the-clock by SEA-KIT via satellite communications from its Remote Operation Centre in Essex. Notably, the unscrewed vessel returned to Plymouth with its fuel tank still around a third full.

The successful completion of this project is a major achievement for the British SME, clearly demonstrating the capabilities of their remotely-controlled USV design in terms of over-the-horizon operation, endurance and ocean-going ability.”
Peter Walker, Director of Technology at SEA-KIT, expressed delight at welcoming Maxlimer back to Plymouth: “It has been a tense but exciting few weeks. The project’s overall aim was to demonstrate the capabilities of current technologies to survey unexplored or inadequately surveyed ocean frontiers and we have absolutely done that. It is a ground-breaking achievement to prove true over-the-horizon capability and the team are elated to have successfully pushed the boundaries of our USV design once again.”
SEA-KIT worked collaboratively with a number of industry partners on the UTAS project. Fugro, Global Marine Group, Map the Gaps, Teledyne CARIS, Woods Hole Group and The Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 project all played a part in its successful completion.
“The data gathered on this Atlantic voyage will be a valuable addition to the global seabed,” said Jamie McMichael-Phillips, Director of Seabed 2030. “More importantly, this is another milestone on the journey towards the development of the kind of scalable, environmentally-friendly technology that we are going to need in order to reach our goal of mapping the whole of the world’s ocean floors by the end of the decade.”
Operation Overlord is a U.S. Navy project designed to provide unmanned ship that can cruise into dangerous areas deliver a missile or other payloads then leave without risking the loss of lives. The Navy has announced a $2.7 billion in funding to develop and field unmanned platforms over the next five years, during which it will buy two large unmanned surface vessels per year.
In a program led by Capt. Pete Small of the Program Executive Office Unmanned and Small Combatants, plans to buy two commercial fast-supply vessels, or FSV, which are used by the oil and gas industry to support offshore infrastructure. Those boats will be added to two similar boats procured by the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office for its Ghost Fleet Overlord program. This new fleet will be converted to unmanned vessels. Ghost Fleet Overlord will consist of two FSVs which have been converted for use as unmanned surface vessels.
The Navy plans to create several types of unmanned vessels and use them to explore the possibilities of their use in military situations. From these experiments, undoubtedly will come civilian uses. Meanwhile, it is full steam ahead for the Navy to experiment in whatever direction evolves. The prototype vessels will be subjected to all sorts of environments to determine how well they will perform.
A new chapter in the ever-evolving history of transportation across the seas. It is very likely that the movement of giant tankers or cruise ships might be an entirely push-button affair. Although I would be hard pressed to believe that those giants of the seas could be entirely trusted to automation, unmanned package delivery and military drone strikes are a reality. In recent months unmanned flights to the orbiting space station have been accomplished without a hitch.
Yet somehow there is that lingering fear in my mind that a small yacht might leisurely sailing across the Atlantic and be missed by an autonomous ship’s radar. It is a frightening prospect but with the realm of possibility.
There are several companies investing many millions of dollars into unmanned vessels. Not the least of which is Rolls Royce. Proponents claim, aside from the obvious cost savings, there are fewer people who want to commit to a life at sea. One wonders if there will one day be unmanned pirates raiding unmanned ships.