Marconi Talk Explores The World Of Autonomous Vessels

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

Sea Machines vessel are rigged with an autonomous command and control software and systems. COURTESY PHOTO

When you hear the words "robot" and "autonomy" applied to boat operations, what do you think? If the image of Captain-less boats moving on Nantucket Sound springs alarmingly to mind, you are on the wrong track, according to Captain Lauren Lamm.

Lamm, the speaker at last week's Chatham Marconi Maritime Center online program titled "Seagoing Robots," is a graduate of the Mass Maritime Academy, an experienced Captain and the Vessel Test Lead at Sea Machines Robotics.

Lamm was very clear. "Autonomy doesn't mean unmanned!" She described autonomous vessel operation instead as a tool to helping to make commercial boating safer and more efficient, not a way to replace the captain.

"We are helping to retool the marine industry," she said, using autonomous command and control software and systems.

Lamm started her talk with a real time demonstration of what is possible today with autonomous systems. Connected online via a computer interface to her colleague Captain Rick, who was at the same time at the helm of the 25-foot Safe boat Steadfast in Quincy Bay, Lamm entered parameters into the craft's autonomous guidance system.  Among the many settings were speed, waypoints, and collision avoidance metrics.

When the captain stepped away from the driver's seat, Lamm took over control of the vessel remotely, moving the ship from waypoint to waypoint over a course that allowed her to demonstrate collision avoidance, the alert system, course correction and more. When installed, each system is tuned to the individual vessel's requirements, she said.

To date, the company has installed systems on 13 vessels located on four continents, including tugs, fireboats, search and rescue boats and dredges. The systems include one designed for remote helm control via a belt pack as well as a more sophisticated man in the loop autonomous command and control system for commercial vessels. Lamm described the long range goal as "fully connected self-driving fleets transporting people from dock to dock, moving on the water safely with precision at the lowest cost." Autonomous systems "make operations simpler, safer and more predictable," Lamm said.

Lots of questions asked by the 71 attendees gave Lamm a chance to expand on the concept and potential of autonomous vessels. Where does she see autonomous vessels a decade from now? "For open ocean transit," she predicted, "everything will be autonomous, taking human error out of the mix. Vehicles will be able to talk to each other," she added. She said she also expects some level of autonomous docking for ferries and other similar vessels.

That brought up the future role of human mariners. Lamm reiterated, "Mariners are not going away. But these systems will take some of the pressure off," referring to the multiple duties, logs and reports that are required for each journey. "Just taking one navigational duty away will be huge."

What is the potential of autonomous vessels for search and rescue? Sea Machines Robotics has outfitted a Coast Guard vessel, currently used for patrolling. "We will need to improve the camera for that function," she added. Another area that still needs work involves drawbridge permission. "Would we know enough about heights to go safely under? There is no solution yet for that."

A viewer wondered if this would help avoid collision with whales. "If the whale is on the camera it will show up as an obstacle and then yes," it would avoid the collision, she answered. "But if we cannot see the whale, it's hard to avoid it."

For mariners familiar with the ups and downs of GPS reception, a question about what happens when GPS is lost was next. "You get an alert," Lamm said, when the GPS is down. "If there is not an update in five seconds, the mission is aborted."

Questions about the security of the system were asked and Lamm noted the system is encrypted. "Security is a huge issue," she noted, adding a lot of testing was done to ensure a secure system.

The Chatham Marconi Maritime Center offers a monthly online Speakers Series. Next up is "The World's Greatest Coastal Station," with Ed Moxon on Sunday, April 18 at 1:30 p.m.  For more information visit www.chathammarconi.org.