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Autonomous Workboats: The Future is Now

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

June 19, 2017

Sea Machines is bringing autonomous self-driving systems to the world of workboats.

At an impressive virtual reality demonstration seen late last year and then again at a frigid, late winter visit to the Boston waterfront, the future of workboat technology became all too evident for this writer. The late George Allen, former head coach of the Washington Redskins football team perhaps said it best when he coined the phrase, “The future is now.” If so, then Michael Johnson, the founder of Sea Machines Robotics has brought that reality to the marine industry. The technology company targets the emerging market of autonomous marine vessels. That’s not some sort of futuristic vision; those capabilities are here, now.
Johnson says that his goal is to bring “advanced technology to his space.” He doesn’t say that arrogantly or without a nod to what has come before. Instead, he explains, “Don’t get me wrong: there are all types of great technology in our space that is progressively advancing, from structural advances, to the latest electro-mechanical equipment, and sensors and instrumentation. But when it comes to command and control systems, data communication, collection and interpretation – advances in these areas will push forward a new era of marine and maritime operations.” That’s already begun. 
Sea Machines Robotics (Boston) is a new technology company focused on bringing autonomous self-driving systems to the marine industries. Incorporated only in January of 2017, the operation was previously part of a Texas LLC. Currently with 10 employees, Johnson says that they will increase to 12 plus two university interns, by summer. Led by an impressive group of marine professionals – some known for their roles in projects such as the salvage of the cruise ship Costa Concordia – the company has completed one year of on-water testing in Boston Harbor and this summer is conducting collaborative multi-vessel trials with commercial operators in common offshore tasks such as hydrographic and bathymetric surveying and oil-spill response.
Whereas predictions for this type of technology for blue water applications say that autonomous vessels are years away, that’s not so for workboats. Testing and trialing of Sea Machine’s Gen 1 system will be completed in the fall. Johnson adds enthusiastically, “This includes real world trialing of the system with commercial customers in their everyday marine operations. So, we will be able to offer the system as a product in late 2017. We have patents pending in the US with more in the works. The patents range from the technology itself to future applications.”
Sea Machine’s first autonomous test hull is a German-built Bodan-Werft river/coastal tug, a steel hull, open cockpit boat with a 250hp air-cooled Duetz and twin Schottel Z-drives. Johnson chose the boat because many workboat operators now deploy Z-drives. “We wanted to prove to ourselves and others that we could readily convert a completely analog/mechanical control boat to electronic fly-by-wire remote command,” says Johnson, adding, “Our autonomous system is developed so that it can be installed on any type of vessel.” Sea Machines intends to offer the autonomous control system as a retrofit for commercial vessels to Munson, Kvichak, Safe Boats and others.
Holy Trinity: VC, Collaboration & Technology
Talk is cheap. At the same time, high profile supporters and partners have put their money where their mouth is. In May, Sea Machines Robotics announced that it had raised $1.5 million in seed financing from lead investor Launch Capital, along with Accomplice VC, LDV Capital, the Geekdom Fund and Techstars. The company will use the funding to accelerate product development, marketing, and sales of its industrial-grade vessel control system. With regard to the new funding, Johnson said simply, “We have a good plan. We come from the marine sector so we know how things can often take longer than planned, so we plan with contingencies.”
At the heart of that effort is industrial-grade control technology and close collaboration with Siemens Industrial in using their proven marine PLC and automation hardware within the Sea Machines 3X autonomy system. That relationship – and others – has been steadily evolving.
“We have a great relationship and understanding with Siemens,” says Johnson, adding, “No formal partnership. We’ve been building on their proven marine industrial hardware and they’ve been promoting our works and advances. We originally approached them to specify their hybrid electric propulsion in a concept unmanned vessel that we were developing with Jensen Maritime and later they came to us and asked how they can help us further our technology. Being a start-up in a realm of tremendous potential we don’t want to marry too early. Maybe we will work on formalizing something with Siemens in the future, but other technology conglomerates in this space have also been expressing interest.”
Sea Machines integrates with the vessel instruments using Siemens PLC Control Software, something they refer to as being ‘architecture redundant.’ In a nutshell, the Sea Machines 3X system has three computers within it, one being the Siemens PLC Control Software for control of the vessel propulsion, thrusting, and steering. Multiple computers provide redundancy as the system is workable minus one computer in the case of a failure.
On the waterfront, where the Sea Machines vision is taking shape, Johnson also has close ties to Denmark-based Jonas Pedersen, co-founder of boatbuilder Tuco Marine. “Jonas and TUCO are now offering the Sea Machines system as an option on their vessels. We will set up a demonstrator system within a TUCO boat this year,” Johnson told MarineNews in May. Separately, Pedersen said, “We have been working with Sea Machines during 2016 to establish a corporation where our ProZero series of Fast Boats for professionals in the best way can be offered as autonomous vessel with all the operational benefits such can offer our clients.” Depending on the actual vessel and fitted systems, Pedersen gave a rough price of around 50,000 Euros per unit. This veteran builder has developed and delivered a myriad of different types of workboats for industrial use.
Dull, Dirty and Dangerous
The possibilities for this type of technology in everyday use are virtually limitless. While the autonomous boat has real utility in military applications such as Coast Guard persistent surveillance, where the unmanned vessel could broadcast back to mother ship such data as video, audio and/or Sonar data, that’s not where Johnson is headed first. “There are definite defense applications for autonomous marine systems,” he concedes, adding, “but we are really focused on the commercial market.”
The marine industry is filled with repetitive back-and-forth operations. For example, seismic, dredging, close in patrol operations and says, Johnson, in the near future, supply services. Right out of the gate however, Sea Machines will focus on the often repeated axiom is that robotics and automation provide intrinsic value in operations that are Dirty, Dull, and Dangerous. “That fully describes the response to an offshore oil spill. Lots of small boat operations, lots of moving parts make it quite dangerous for personnel, direct exposure to oil, pollutants, and toxins makes it even more dangerous and dirty, and the continuous sweeping through spill zones collecting oil for skimming can be monotonous or dull.” But, not if the vessel – or multiple vessels, towing spill booms – is autonomously controlled.
The “limiter” on the range is not the system or communication link. Johnson explains, “The line-of-sight range is designated by the operations plan and the PIC (often times the master aboard a mothership or control vessel). We commonly test with broadband radios with ranges up to five miles but there are more powerful units available with ranges listed at 12 miles, other radio types (and mast heights) and of course satellite data links can provide any range necessary.”
Looking Ahead
Michael Johnson says that technology is now trying to push beyond controlled areas into the open roads, open skies, and in our world; the open seas. Technology for technology’s sake alone won’t be a selling point for budget conscious, bottom line driven commercial operators. That’s why Johnson refers to the autonomous boat concept as a ‘force multiplier.’ “An example of force multiplication today is when a survey company conducts a multi beam bottom survey using one manned vessel. By deploying autonomous unmanned vessels to work in conjunction with the manned vessel, the operator can gather more survey data with nearly the same number of personnel,” says Johnson, adding for emphasis, “Force multiplication increases productivity and efficiency.”
Tuco’s Pedersen says that he has clients in different sectors who are looking into using his boats autonomously, including the defense sector, seismic and ROV operations, where autonomous control can make operations more effective when it is no longer necessary stop to change out crew. Like Johnson, Pedersen said the oil recovery business is very interested in this option for the towing of spill booms and other similar tasks.
Pedersen looks ahead to his growing collaboration with Sea Machines by saying, “We definitely see this is as a major part of the future of workboats, but also think that this will come in steps as regulations and trust in these systems is still a barrier. The first step of users that we see is the ‘within the horizon users’ where the user and operator actually have visual contact with the vessel during the operations and therefore have a more simplified approach to the questions of who is in control of the boat.”
Johnson has his own vision. “I want stakeholders to know that autonomous is not synonymous with unmanned. While companies like Rolls Royce are projecting about the unmanned ships of the future, we see it somewhat differently and foresee a world where autonomous control increases the capability, safety, and productivity of manned ships.”
Sea Machines:
(As published in the June 2017 edition of Marine News)