Autonomous tug completes 1,000NM voyage to arrive in Hamburg

The world’s first fully autonomous and remotely commanded vessel voyage of more than 1,000 nautical miles has been successfully completed, with the autonomous tug Nellie Bly competing the journey in 129 operational hours over 13 days.

The ‘Machine Odyssey’ project was carried out by autonomous technology company Sea Machines Robotics, with the tug commanded by US Coast Guard-licensed mariners remotely stationed 4,800 km away in Boston as it travelled around the coast of Denmark before its final arrival in Hamburg.

“The completion of this voyage marks the catalyst for a new era of at-sea operations,” said Michael Johnson, CEO of Sea Machines.

“Over the last two millennia it’s estimated that around one-hundred million vessels have transited these same Danish waters. Though vessels, cargos, nations and destinations have changed, the way these great ships are commanded has remained virtually constant, with humans onboard making navigational decisions, undertaking manual control actuation, and communicating person to person. Only now are we revealing a new method of operation.”

“Remotely commanded autonomous vessels provide the marine industries with the platform necessary to be competitive in the modern world, delivering significant increases in productivity and operational safety, digitised ultra-efficiency and response speed, and will provide a new world of actionable operational data for improved planning and business practices. The Machine Odyssey signals the start of a new human-technology relationship propelling on-sea operations in the 21st century.”

The Nellie Bly employed AI-enabled long-range computer vision and a sensor-to-propeller autonomy system, the Sea Machines SM300, to manage path-planning, active domain perception, dynamic obstacle and traffic avoidance and replanning, depth sensing, and fusion of vectored nautical chart data.

Almost 97% of the 1,027-mile journey was accomplished under fully autonomous control, and the SM300 successfully executed 31 collision-avoidance and traffic separation manoeuvres, Sea Machines says. Using multi-sensor fusion, the system digitally perceived over 30,000 square kilometres of ocean space for analysis during the voyage, with the tug averaging a speed of 7.9 knots.

The project has collected some 3.8TB of operational data over the course of the trip, with the onboard systems providing the remote commanders in Boston with an active chart of the environment and live augmented overlays showing the progress of the mission, state of the vessel, situational awareness of the domain, real-time audio and video from streaming cameras.

“Autonomy is taking hold faster on the waterways than it is on roadways,” added Mr Johnson.

“Our autonomous systems are already supporting vessel operations around the world in manned and unmanned capacities. We are rapidly retooling the marine industries with an advanced perception, self-piloting system, and connected vessel intelligence. The Machine Odyssey was a success and we believe we will soon see autonomy become commonplace.”

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Rob O'Dwyer

Rob is Chief Network Officer and one of the founders of Smart Maritime Network. He also serves as Chairman of the Smart Maritime Council. Rob has worked in the maritime technology sector since 2005, managing editorial for a range of leading publications in the transport and logistics sector. Get in touch by email by clicking here, or on LinkedIn by clicking here.

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