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Marine Autonomy: The Future is Now

Marine Autonomy: The Future is Now

Vessel autonomy may be the most-discussed technology of the maritime industry's future. Its prospects are bright, but there is no need to wait: a vessel owner can buy it today, install it aboard a commercial boat and upgrade operations with modern capabilities in no time. Marine autonomy is no longer a theory or a prediction, but a product.

Boston-based startup Sea Machines has been developing and perfecting a standardized autonomous control platform since 2015. The firm's SM300 package is an autonomy suite designed specifically for commercial workboats - and commercial budgets. When deployed in the right application, like small-boat survey operations, it boosts operational productivity and yields savings of up to 40 percent. In trials conducted to date, it has shown that it can pay for itself in a year or less.

"The biggest advantage is in keeping the screws turning and keeping the vessel operating," said Michael Johnson, Sea Machines' founder and CEO (left). "For example, survey and seismic companies are no longer putting workboats in the water after dark due to the risk to the crew. With autonomy, you can continue working around the clock, which leads to more productive operations."

Robust design

The SM300 is comprised of three parts. First, it has a low-level vessel controller, an industrial PLC that handles the interconnectivity and communication with onboard vessel sensors and systems as well as regulated control of propulsion and steering. Second, it has an autonomy engine, which is the on-board decision maker that commands the vessel controller with heading and speed to direct the boat's movement. Both of these software elements run on Siemens' industrial-grade hardware, all built soundly inside an IP-rated marinized enclosure. The system's third component is for the vessel operator, the graphical user interface, which can be used on board the vessel under autonomous control or remotely. This is based on a certified ECDIS system, and it can connect over wireless, 4G or satellite for long-distance remote operation.