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Long Island Sound Hybrid Catamaran

For the past year, First Harvest Navigation of Norwalk, Connecticut has been using its hybrid-powered vessel to transport supplies between its four-year-old Harbor Harvest food market in East Norwalk and a new one of the same name that it opened on the waterfront in Huntington on Long Island.

Now the Derecktor-built catamaran that carries produce and occasionally passengers across Long Island Sound is about to be the first known autonomous-controlled cargo vessel in the United States.

The company has installed a $100,000 remote-helm control system from Boston-based Sea Machines Robotics that allows the vessel to be operated with no crew aboard. But First Harvest plans to keep its captain and two deckhands in place. It sees the system as a way to back up the captain while he is steering and free him up to help with preparing cargo for unloading and other tasks away from the helm.

First Harvest installed Sea Machines’ SM300 autonomous command and remote-helm control system on its electric-powered Captain Ben Moore in November. First Harvest president Bob Kunkel said after testing, he expects the system to be in full operation on the 63-foot aluminum catamaran by spring.

The Sea Machines system allows remote control operation from shore or another vessel via the Internet and includes obstruction-detection and collision-avoidance technology.

With a growing interest in autonomous control systems, Kunkel said, “Everybody wants to talk about removing the crew. We don’t think that’s where the value of autonomy can come. We don’t have any intention at this time of removing the crew. We think we can provide safer navigation. We have a captain and two deckhands, and the captain could come back and get the cargo ready for discharge rather than just being glued to the pilot seat as the boat is going back and forth. It would be a pilot program to see how we could operate the vessel more efficiently. It’s not going to be operated as a drone.”

Kunkel, a Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate who has worked as a merchant marine chief engineer said he has had a lot of discussion with the Coast Guard about the system to ensure safety would not be sacrificed. He said it is akin to an enhanced autopilot system with more safeguards to prevent accidents. He said he’s been on other vessels equipped with the system and the captains have enough confidence in it that they can take all their eyes off the view out the windshield for 20 minutes without sacrificing safety.

There’s still some fine-tuning necessary in the system’s detection and analysis of obstructions ahead of the vessel, Kunkel said. “It has the ability to notice that there is an obstruction ahead” and warn the operator. But “it has to develop some more recognition. Right now just about everything is recognized as a boat so collision avoidance is still something that’s being developed.” Kunkel is working with the manufacturer to fine-tune the system so it can better differentiate types of obstructions.

Kunkel said he will be testing operating the system via computer from shore but “there will be somebody on the boat too to make sure that I don’t crash the boat into the damn dock.”

A documentary is being made about the project, Kunkel said.

Captain Ben Moore has been in operation for about a year. Kunkel said it is currently running from Norwalk to Huntington about twice a week since business has slowed due to Covid-19 curbing the demand from restaurants for fresh fish.

“We have some good contracts with a lot of food moving on the boat and we have a lot of passenger interest also from people interested in going between the two points,” he said. “I think it will grow.”

Besides transporting food from Norwalk to the new Huntington store, the company moves produce from a farm in New Jersey and makes deliveries as far out as Montauk. The boat can carry 50 passengers, and in the summer has carried passengers on day trips back and forth between Long Island and Connecticut. “That’s been pretty successful,” Kunkel said.

He said trucking the food products from Connecticut to Long Island would be more than an eight-hour round trip while the catamaran reaches Huntington in about 40 minutes. “Shifting cargo from streets and highways also alleviates the growing congestion, lower emissions and reestablishes our waterways as a viable and cost-efficient alternative to land-based transport,” Kunkel said.

“Sea Machines and First Harvest Navigation are aligned in our commitments to innovation to bolster the U.S. marine highway system and in our support of family farms,” commented Michael G. Jonson, founder and CEO of Sea Machines.

The five-year-old company’s marketing communications consultant, Amelia Smith, said “Sea Machines systems have been installed aboard a Maersk containership, a Harbor Harvest hybrid cargo vessel, an MSRC spill-response vessel, a Hike Metal search-and-rescue boat, a DEEP survey vessel, tugboats supporting U.S. flag ATB units, a Metal Shark Sharktech 29 Defiant pilothouse vessel, a Maine Maritime Academy training vessel, a HamiltonJet boat, a TUCO fireboat, a USCG R&D vessel, a self-propelled barge for the Department of Defense, and others … off the coast of four continents right now.” She said the company has performed more than 20,000 miles of autonomous operation with its test fleet in Boston, Hamburg and Denmark. Smith said it’s important for people to understand that.

“Autonomous doesn’t equal unmanned. All of our SM300 autonomous command and control system customers use the autonomy features, which include autonomous transit, obstacle detection and collision avoidance, grid autonomy, collaborative autonomy and/or remote vessel command and control. Autonomy systems work 24/7 and never get tired or distracted. This “on-watch redundancy” can help to prevent operational incidents and keep crews safer. The majority of our customers are using this system as a mariner’s aid, with crew on board. Unmanned operations are only being done in a very few special uses cases in very controlled domains.”

Captain Ben Moore is the third in a series of 65-foot aluminum catamarans built by Derecktor Shipyards in Mamaroneck, NY, and the first design for carrying freight. It is powered by a pair of Cummins QSB 6.7 diesels, generating 104 kW each at 2,400 kW, and lithium batteries connected to a pair of BAE Systems HybriDrive electric motors. The vessel has a top speed of 15 knots and boasts 300 square feet of open cargo space, 100 square feet of covered space and 140 square feet of walk-in refrigerated space. The total capacity is 12,000 pounds of cargo or the equivalent of three to five full truckloads, according to Kunkel.

The earlier Derecktor catamarans are Spirit of the Sound, built for the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, and CUNY I, ordered by the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College.