Texas A&M Students Building Autonomous Seafloor Mapping Boat

autonomous boat

By The Maritime Executive 03-02-2019 06:00:13

A five-person team of marine engineering students in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M in Galveston is building an eight-foot autonomous vessel they say could change the face of seafloor mapping. 

The team is already presenting the project to potential corporate clients. They have much of the software ready and are currently cutting the metal plate to be used in the vessel's construction. 

The project is being undertaken by James Payne (team leader, electronics), Leland Murphy (naval architecture), Frank Merkle (logistics), Corey Staph (sonar and propulsion), Alec Rappleyea (power systems, renewable energy, PR).

The vessel will utilize hobbyist grade electronics (i.e. microcontrollers, low-frequency radios, GPS modules), with parameters such as mapping area, speed requirements and grid sizesupplied to the system prior to a mission. The initial capabilities of the vessel will include both manual and autonomous operation: manual control out to approximately one kilometer and autonomous operation outside of the communication range.  

Currently, only about five percent of the ocean floor is mapped to a degree deemed usable for exploration. The current processes of multi-million dollar ships with high expenses for food, fuel, workers, insurance and repairs is currently limiting exploration, says Rappleyea. “What if there were a way to send out hundreds of vessels all mapping simultaneously at the same cost of just one ship? That is what we are trying to accomplish.”

He says the vessel would be advantageous to organizations like NOAA, companies within the oil and gas sector, but its main market would be ports, such as the port of Galveston, which have to map frequently to determine if there has any change in the sea floor.

“We are building a eight-foot, 150kg vessel with autonomous functions and a user interface for $1,200 while the other companies researching into these vessels are investing 100 times that or a thousand times that. If we succeed with this vessel it would cut the costs of ocean mapping significantly and afford the ability to map the ocean floor much quicker,” says Rappleyea.

Most recently the team received some funds from the research organization MARIN in Norway to assist with battery capacity. The vessel is expected to be operational by the end of March.