You’ve probably heard of autonomous cars or even of autonomous trucks, with many companies now working for them to become a reality. But the world of self-driving vehicles is actually much bigger, as seen with an autonomous cargo boat that just successfully complemented a round trip from the UK to Belgium.
The Maxlimer vessel from the company SEA-KIT International traveled from West Mersea to Oostende, carrying a box of oysters and relying on a range of technologies to safely navigate what is considered as one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It was the first commercial crossing of the North Sea by an autonomous boat.
“This voyage has been months in the making, and to see it all come together is amazing,” Ben Simpson of SEA-KIT International, told the BBC. “[The USV’s] potential lies in its ability to be adapted to a range of tasks, whether it be transit, hydrographic surveys, environmental missions, or marine safety and security.”
The USV’s are designed to provide a low-cost and environmentally low-impact solution to commercial offshore projects, according to SEA-KIT International’s website. The deployment of the USVs represents should allow for cost savings as well as reductions in carbon emissions, the company argues.
Instead of having a crew on board, the vessel uses a communications and control system known as Global Situational Awareness via the Internet. This allows an operator to remotely control it, using CCTV footage, thermal imaging and radar, as well as listening live to the surrounding of the vessel.
The crossing from the UK to Belgium took 22 hours in total as the vessel moves slowly, at a few knots per hour. While it carried oysters on its way to Belgium, it returned to the UK with Belgium beers. The actual capacity of the vessel is estimated at 2.5 tons, which was far from met on this first demonstration.
The crossing was supported by several government agencies in the UK such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Transport, and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The European Space Agency and partners in Belgium also took part in the initiative.
“We can do the same work as traditional vessels but using a fraction of the fuel, just 5%,” Simpson told BBC News. “We’re passionate about reducing carbon emissions and we look forward to doing more demonstrations and making this commercially viable.”
This isn’t the first accomplishment of the Maxlimer. The vessel won last year the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE competition, in partnership with a Kongsberg HUGIN autonomous underwater vehicle. The competition involved performing high-resolution autonomous mapping at depths of up to 2,000 meters without significant human guidance.