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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

The race is on to develop the first ocean-going autonomous vessel

Tue 04 Aug 2015 by Martyn Wingrove

The race is on to develop the first ocean-going autonomous vessel

The gauntlet has been set to develop the world’s first autonomous unmanned vessel that can sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Plymouth University hopes to be the first to utilise the latest navigation and automation technology to develop a vessel that can sail from Europe to North America without crew. It will be working with autonomous craft specialists MSubs, and UK yacht designer Shuttleworth Design on a sailing yacht that can make the crossing using only renewable energy technology. The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship project, codenamed Mars, should demonstrate what is possible in the development of remotely-controlled vessels with potential synergies with developing unmanned commercial ships.

There has been increasing interest in the technology needed to remotely control a vessel on an ocean voyage. In previous issues of Marine Electronics & Communications, we have highlighted the opinions of those who expect the shipping industry to develop technology that will remove crew from commercial ships. Rolls-Royce vice president for marine innovation Oskar Levander has been an advocate for developing unmanned ships, and believes the first semi-autonomous cargo ships will be in operation from 2025 onwards. Read the full story here

Classification society DNV GL has become involved in the discussions. It recently created a design concept, named Revolt, for an unmanned vessel for shortsea voyages. Read the full story here. There have been a number of discussions on the back of these progressions, which highlight how the technology is readily available, but the regulations and public opinion are not. There are still issues surrounding safe navigation and collision avoidance, as well as adequately maintaining these vessels, to overcome before remotely-controlled commercial ships will be allowed.

However, the Mars project should demonstrate how the technology can be adopted. Plymouth University expects it will take two and a half years to design and build the vessel. There will then be a year-long test period. It anticipates the maiden autonomous voyage could be in 2020 to mark the 400th anniversary of the original Mayflower sailings from Plymouth to North America.

Plymouth University executive dean of the science and engineering faculty, professor Kevin Jones says the project will be a genuine world-first, and a platform for future research. “It will be a test bed for new navigation software and alternative forms of power, incorporating huge advancements in solar, wave and sail technology,” he adds.

Plymouth-based firm MSubs will use its experience in building autonomous marine vessels. It has initiated discussions with DNV GL and the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency to ensure the vessel meets class and regulatory standards. MSubs managing director Brett Phaneuf says the Mars project would confront current regulations governing autonomous vessel at sea. He adds: “The civilian maritime world has, as yet, been unable to harness the autonomous drone technology that has been used so effectively in situations considered unsuitable for humans. It begs the question, if we can put a rover on planet Mars and have it autonomously conduct research, why can’t we sail an unmanned vessel across the Atlantic Ocean and, ultimately, around the globe?”

Isle of Wight-based Shuttleworth Design is working on the design concepts and preparing to test trimaran models at Plymouth University. The multi-million pound project is part of the university’s ‘Shape the Future’ fundraising campaign. Initial funding has been provided by the university, MSubs, and the ProMare Foundation. It is looking for corporate and private sponsorship.

Whether this project actually gets further than the model concept test stage will depend on how much the wider maritime industry wants to develop autonomous vessel technology. But it is projects such as this one that will demonstrate how the technology can deliver unmanned ships of the future.

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