Taking Autonomy One Step at a Time

Sea Machines
The Sea Machines V1 Autonomous Work Boat is primarily designed for heavy work such as towing and barge moving, the V1 also has the capability for extended survey operations and station keeping/standoff applications.

By Wendy Laursen 2015-09-14 16:51:09

U.S.-based Sea Machines is developing unmanned work boats for the maritime and offshore industries which it says will take the future of autonomous shipping forward one step at a time.

Currently a 24-foot boat is being fitted with the company’s system, ahead of making a commercial product available in the first half of 2017.

CEO Michael Gordon Johnson envisages a number of applications including oil spill response. 

“Very early on, we were approached by people in the oil spill response industry and talking with Finland’s Lamor. They saw value in being able to tow an oil spill skimming boom using an unmanned vessel like ours,” he says.

“The challenge in oil spill operations is that you never know where the spill is going to occur, and to react in enough time to collect the oil, with crew that have been trained in the methods, is a huge challenge. Typically, what happens is that boats of convenience and crews of convenience are used. This is not necessarily the most efficient outcome.”

The Sea Machines V1 is designed for J-towing of booms for Oil Spill Response.  In this application the V1 runs in a Supervised Autonomy mode, following the main vessel and standing off at pre determined distances set by the operator.


Johnson cites the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill when local fishermen were called on to help with towing booms. “Working surrounded by crude oil is absolutely miserable and can cause health problems. It is hazardous, and, in this case, it was reported that BP had to pay millions of dollars in compensation claims to the clean-up crews.” 

There are other situations too where Johnson sees an unmanned system as more efficient, able to operate for longer periods than manned vessels, and safer. The system is well suited to repetitive tasks such as surveying. In this scenario, a manned vessel would form the centrepiece of the operation with one or more unmanned boats working in formation with it. The master of the manned boat would have control of the other vessels, or alternatively, they could be controlled from a shore base.

The set-up would reduce costs, says Johnson, who also sees harbor tugs working in a similar fashion. There will still be masters and mariners involved in tug work, but you will see varying degrees of increased automation, such as autonomous tugs working in concert with a lead manned tug.  Ultimately, increasing levels of autonomous operation will boost safety, efficiency and reduce costs, says Johnson.

The Sea Machines V1 is capable of running extended survey grids due to its duration, available power, and room for onboard processors and storage.  Hardened Wifi will allow Surveyors to operate and modify settings of Multibeam or Side Scan Sonar systems from aboard another vessel.  Running a Sea Machines V1 in conjunction with a Survey Boat is a force multiplier which will effective double coverage rates. The Twin Azimuthing Propellors of the V1 allows for accurate survey lines in the most challenging conditions and cross winds.


He likens the company’s new control system to the advances made by the development of dynamic positioning (DP). A skilled master can keep a vessel in position, but it is much easier for a computer to do it. Sea Machines’ system is an advancement of DP and has DP functionality contained with it.

“Our system is a step beyond dynamic positioning,” says Johnson. “Dynamic positioning, right now, can be used to keep a vessel on station or to send it to a set destination, but the interface still relies on a person being there. We are taking the next step. The interface is not on the boat itself but on a separate vessel.”

The next step forward again is to have the unmanned vessels working beyond the line of sight using satellite communications.

“Our whole concept is to develop autonomous control systems and unmanned work boats,” says Johnson. “This is the next natural evolution of the maritime space – to go from the current, manned vessels that are out there to adding additional levels of automation.”

The company’s first system is suited to work boats up to around 50 foot length and can be installed on newbuildings or retrofitted for optionally unmanned operations. That will be followed with technology suitable for larger boats by around 2020. 

The Sea Machines V1 makes an ideal small Fire Boat, allowing the vehicle to get closer to, or under hazardous fires than would normally be safe with operators aboard.  The V1's accurate stand off and station keeping capabilities will keep the vehicle where the operators set it, while allowing them direct control of the fire pump. 
The Sea Machines V1 Surveyor/AUV Tender is an extension of our robust V1 Autonomous Work Boat (AWB). The vehicle is designed to actively position AUVs through continous USBL updates, allowing the vehicle to run extended surveys without loss of navigational accuracy. The V1 acts in collaboration with the AUV, following and providing overwatch of the vehicle during its mission. This frees up the mother ship to position an additional AUV or tend to other tasks; such as launch and recovery and on deck turnaround. The Sea Machine can also collect AUV data using an acoustic modem and then store, process or transfer to personnel aboard the mother ship.