The robot boats are coming

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Build your own robot boat for hands-free commercial work.

Are robot boats set to take the place of commercial vessel operators in the future? While there has been much discussion about autonomous vessels such as cargo boats and ferries operating in the future, one US robotics company is now offering a retrofit control system for small commercial vessels that will enable 'hands-free' operation.

Called the Sea Machines 300, the control system upgrades a boat's operating controls to enable direct remote control using a joystick at a distance of up to 1 kilometre, or even complete autonomous control which will pilot the boat along a pre-planned course with no human intervention.

Produced by Sea Machines Robotics based in Boston, the system has undergone 18 months of testing and is now being offered to offshore and near-shore vessel operators as well as boat builders and retrofit partners.

“The Sea Machines 300 opens a new world of on-water operations providing multi-fold increases in work boat safety, efficiency, and productivity,” said Sea Machines CEO Michael G. Johnson. “Sea Machines technology gives companies the ability to get ahead of the marine technology curve. We are making autonomous and remote command a standardised product that soon will be as commonly deployed as radar or chart plotter systems.”

The growing use of automation and robotics in many industry sectors is predicted to transform the work environment over the coming decades, replacing many routine jobs that currently require manual intervention. In the case of the Sea Machines 300, possible work boat scenarios include bathymetric surveying, seismic support, spill operations, dredging, aquaculture, surveillance, area marking, and escort.

The system is also designed to allow crew to focus on other operating tasks. For instance, an operator will be able to control the vessel from a remote location via a video and radar feed while also remotely controlling onboard payloads such as survey sonars, winches, cranes and davits.

According to the manufacturers, the system uses marine industrial Siemens components and computers which interface with vessel instruments and systems. It takes data from typical navigation sensors for real-time awareness and perception, including DGPS, AIS, and radar. All autonomy system components are mounted in a marine IP67-rated electrical enclosure.

The system is supplied with a user interface, called Sea Machines TALOS, which enables either autonomous or direct joystick control. TALOS can also control multiple vessels from a single station. In autonomy mode, the user can select from programmable commands such as planned waypoint tracking/grids or collaborative navigation with other vessels. It also features embedded collision avoidance algorithms and abides by parts of the COLREG navigation rules.

Retail price of the Sea Machines 300 system is US$98,500 and is available for order.

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