INSIGHTS: Thomas S. Chance, Chief Executive Officer, ASV Global
Thomas Chance founded C & C Technologies in his home in 1992. Today C & C is a global oil field surveying and mapping company with more than 550 employees in ten offices worldwide. C & C was the first company in the world to offer autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) survey services to the oil industry and remains a world leader in the field. In April of 2015, he sold C & C Technologies to Oceaneering International. Complementing the autonomous underwater vehicle business, Mr. Chance started Autonomous Surface Vehicles, Ltd., or ASV, in 2010. ASV has 140 employees, four offices across the globe and has built more than 100 state-of-the-art unmanned boats for the defense and commercial sectors. Under his leadership, both C & C and ASV have won numerous awards for both technical and commercial achievements. Mr. Chance has personally won numerous awards in his career including the 1996 Entrepreneur of the Year for the Gulf Coast Region, the 2006 LCG International Trade Development Group International Achievement Award, the 2008 Marine Technology Reporter Seamaster of the Year Award, and in 2018, was named a Louisiana Legend. Chance is former chairman of the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA) Technology Policy Committee and former Board member of LAGCOE. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from LSU, a Master’s of Science in Engineering from Purdue University, and a Master’s of Science in Industrial Administration also from Purdue. This month, he weighs in on the autonomous revolution now underway on the commercial waterfront.
Autonomous vessels have gotten a lot of attention as of late, yet ASV has been putting autonomous solutions on the water for many years. Tell us a little bit about ASV.
It is exciting to say that ASV Global is the largest and most experienced unmanned vessel company in the world. We have delivered more than 100 new build USVs; about 10x that of our nearest competitor in the diesel-powered category. We have also converted 15 manned vessels to optionally unmanned and integrated more than different 40 payload types. In addition to building and selling USVs, ASV Global leases USVs, and provides field support.
Describe the importance of your collaboration with Metal Shark Boats in terms of your applications?
Metal Shark is a great client. They are certainly a leader in the small to mid-sized security vessel industry, and they are headquartered just 30 minutes down the road from ASV Global’s US headquarters. The combination of ASV Global’s autonomous control technology (ASView) and Metal Shark’s line of patrol craft make for a powerful solution. Vessels can operate manned, minimally manned, or unmanned. In the unmanned mode, their missions are supervised by a remote operator via a satellite or radio link. Certain designs can station keep, or remain on patrol, for more than a week at a time. This greatly extends the value of the asset while minimizing the operational cost.
Describe the ASV technology that controls your products. Where some others are employing off-the-shelf technology, yours is proprietary, is it not?
ASV Global’s technology is based around our ASView product which is a combination of modular software, hardware, and sensors integrated together to provide collision avoidance, line running, and when desired, remote supervision and control of the vessel and payload. While it is proprietary to ASV, and we install it on vessels that we build, we also install it on vessels others have built. Finally, we use ASView to convert existing manned vessels to optionally unmanned.
I understand that your technology be used as a bridge aid. Can you describe that?
A byproduct of our ASView autonomous control system is that it can be used on manned ships as a “second opinion” on the bridge regarding navigation maneuvers to avoid collisions. So at 3am when the helmsman is struggling to stay awake and the ship is on a collision course, our system will provide an audible alert and recommend a heading change to avoid an accident.
What applications do autonomous vessels have the best opportunity to impact the markets?
Autonomous vessels are impacting a broad spectrum of the maritime market. When we started the company in 2010, we assumed that only a small percentage of the industrial and military vessels were candidates for becoming unmanned. However, our customers have been the ones broadening the unmanned applications. We are seeing expanded interest from both the defense and commercial sectors, we are seeing interest in far larger unmanned and minimally manned vessels, and we are seeing interest in the conversion of large existing manned vessels to optionally unmanned.
You mention minimally manned. Can you elaborate?
Some maritime missions require additional personnel on board to operate complex payload equipment or sensors. For example, a ship with an observation class ROV may include 20 people between the ship and ROV crews for 24 hour operations. The minimally manned concept is a stepping stone between manned and unmanned. With collision avoidance, autonomous control of the ROV ship, and remote control of the ROV via satellite, the crew count can be reduced to around six who are there for maintenance and docking purposes. This makes for lower ship build costs, lower daily operating costs, and potentially longer endurance. Minimally manned is a great option to lower costs while lowering technical risk with challenging mission payloads.
Where, so far, has been your best (most significant) penetration into the autonomous vessel markets been? Where is the next big thing likely to come?
Sixty percent of ASV Global’s unmanned sales are in the defense sector, while the remaining 40 percent are in the commercial arena. ASV Global’s technology is front and center on Europe’s most advanced mine countermeasure program. We have also had great success with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and expect that to continue to expand. It is a bit of a challenge to predict where the next big thing will likely hit as there are many areas, both military and commercial, that are poised to capitalize on our game changing technology.
‘Dull, Dirty and Dangerous’ is the catch-phrase that describes the best reasons to employ autonomous technology on the water. What are some other good applications?
While dull, dirty, and dangerous are all good reasons, the main driver towards ASV technology is lower capital and operating costs. An unmanned vessel does not need state rooms, hallways, heads, a mess or galley, a large bridge, hospital room, lounge room, etc. This makes for a much simpler vessel that is less expensive to build and less expensive to maintain. Then with less crew, or no crew onboard, daily costs are less. The daily costs can be pushed down even further by operating at somewhat slower speeds, which are usually dramatically more economical.
Hydrographic surveys are a chief area where vessel operators see opportunities to provide value with autonomously driven tonnage. Give us some examples of where this has happened already?
Hydrographic surveys where unmanned vessels operate as a force multiplier to a mother vessel are certainly one of the most straight forward applications of autonomous vessel technology. ASV Global’s unmanned vessels have been used over the past three years to support more than 15,000 km of hydrographic surveys in Alaska alone for NOAA, through their survey contractor, Terrasond.
Flag state and classification society rules – not to mention the U.S. Coast Guard and IMO – will have a great deal to say about what happens with autonomous vessels, and when and where they can operate. How far along that journey are we?
The regulators are being careful to provide a balance of guidance without killing the industry. ASV Global operates in a very transparent manner which likely helps our situation. Finally, all of our clients have been very rational about where and when they operate. With slow speeds and generally in open waters, unmanned vessel operations are far more benign than, for example, in the driverless car world which is dramatically more challenging.
Is there a particular flag state or operating area that is today particularly amenable to autonomous operations? If so, describe those areas or flag states.
I would say that all of the flag states that we have dealt with have all been amenable to autonomous operations at this point. They are all very positive and interested in unmanned vessel technology. Of course, we are not proposing to operate at high speeds in congested areas, which probably helps.
Some stakeholders and SME’s insist that the autonomous role for workboats is much closer than it is for oceangoing tonnage. That being said; will there ever be a place for this on the 1,000-foot boxship? If so, are we a long way out from it?
The boxship is a great candidate for the bridge aid (as described earlier) to help existing manned vessels avoid collisions. This safety aid is available now and can possibly reduce insurance costs. New unmanned ships will be simpler and less expensive to build than their manned counterparts and, if the client can accept it, the unmanned ship can operate at more economical speeds. To be prudent, it would make sense to have unmanned container ships manned as they come in and out of port. This can be facilitated with a small bridge or “tractor cab”.
Line-of-site control applications seem to be the most common solutions today – for example, a mother vessel technician controlling two vessels towing a spill boom or skimmer. Yet, hydrographic surveys can be performed using pre-programmed GPS grids and some applications boast the possibility of a satellite link. How close are we to realizing the last two options?
ASV Global, and our clients, have remotely supervised many of our unmanned vessels as they have navigated along pre-programmed grids. We have also conducted numerous operations while monitoring operations from shore via satellite. With the continuous proliferation of new satellite communications systems, costs are going down while transmission speeds are going up. New low Earth orbiting (LEO) satellite systems also offer much lower latencies periods, facilitating robust joy stick control for remote docking and ROV operations.
At this year’s MACC show, the ASV / Metal Shark entry featured not only an autonomously controlled vessel but also one that had drone capability on board. This is a real force multiplier, isn’t it? Very much something that the Coast Guard could use to double or triple their eyes and ears on an interdiction mission, yes?
The ASV / Metal Shark vessel demonstrated at MACC certainly has the attention of the US Coast Guard as well as coast guards from other countries. A modification of that vessel can be used to loiter offshore for a week or more while providing persistent reconnaissance back to shore via satellite. If a suspicious vessel is detected, the loitering vessel can be dispatched to intercept. The aerial drone can be deployed for a better view from a safe distance. The implications for lower total costs and higher total days at sea are pretty striking.
And, speaking of force multipliers, and while most stakeholders are hesitant to discuss the role of autonomy in reducing the necessary number of mariners and personnel, there can be no doubt that this will be at least one of the impacts on the marine business going forward. That said; autonomy creates other jobs that will displace more traditional seafaring roles. Would you agree?
The dirty little secret of the unmanned boat business is that it is not completely unmanned. We have talked about reduced manning, we have talked about bridge aids on manned vessels, and we have talked about manning unmanned ships as they come in and out of port. There is also the maintenance of the vessels once in port. Also, a lot of existing ships will not get upgraded with unmanned technology because of grossly unreliable existing equipment. My guess is that the natural attrition rate of mariners due to retirement, etc., will more than offset jobs which lost due to automation.
Emerging technologies dictate that the mariner of tomorrow will be different from the mariner of today – both in terms of skill sets and the training required to get them up to speed. Do you agree?
The skill set of mariners has continued to advance over the decades and will continue to do so.
What is the biggest challenge to creating autonomous systems for a garden variety workboat hull? Why?
There are really no substantial challenges. ASV Global has built and converted many unmanned vessels, most under 40’ (12m). Making larger vessels operate unmanned is actually easier than making smaller vessels operate unmanned. ASV Global’s software is agnostic and adapts to all vessel shapes and sizes. Larger vessels do have more systems to monitor, but they also have better seakeeping ability, bigger radars, and allow for larger satellite antennas.
You are building a C-Worker 5 vessel for the University of Mississippi – tell us about that hull, why it is special, and what it will do?
The C-Worker 5 unmanned vessel is a 5-meter direct drive diesel that is ideal for hydrographic survey operations. This is the fifth C-Worker 5 we have built, and there are several improvements that this vessel will have over the earlier systems. These USVs can operate for several days at a time at a 6-knot cruise speed. The vehicle is capable of operating with a high frequency multibeam sonar, towed side scan sonar, and a CTD casting system. The University of Mississippi (USM) procurement also includes a dual davit launch and retrieval system (LARS) that can be adapted to a ship of opportunity. The C-Worker 5 will be used in USM’s unmanned certification training program, as well as the university’s bachelor’s and master’s degree hydrography programs.
One possible route for autonomous vessel deployment is in the use of an in-house fleet maintained by the builder (ASV, for example) for routine charters to other firms. Does that concept have legs?
Not only does the idea have merit, it is being done. ASV Global has an in-house fleet of autonomous vessels that it leases out to clients on an as needed basis. ASV engineers will normally integrate the client’s payload into the vessel and test it in a nearby lake or offshore. The client’s personnel can then be trained to operate the autonomous vessel, or ASV Global can provide field support. Leasing is a great way for those new to autonomous vessel operations to become more familiar with the technology prior to making a procurement.
(*) NOTE: ASV Global has recently been sold to L3 Technologies.
This article first appeared in the October print edition of MarineNews magazine.