Startup teaching boat to become self-navigating

Joshua Brustein
Bloomberg News
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Frank Marino sat in a repurposed U.S. Coast Guard boat bobbing in Boston Harbor one morning late last month. He pointed the boat straight at a buoy several hundred yards away, while his colleague Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik used a laptop to set the vehicle on a course that would run right into it. Then Ibn Seddik flipped the boat into autonomous driving mode. They sat back as the vessel moved at a modest speed of six knots, smoothly veering right to avoid the buoy, and then returned to its course.

In a slightly apologetic tone, Marino acknowledged the experience wasn’t as harrowing as barreling down a highway in an SUV that no one is steering. “It’s not like a self-driving car, where the wheel turns on its own,” he said. Ibn Seddik tapped in directions to get the boat moving back the other way at twice the speed. This time, the vessel kicked up a wake, and the turn felt sharper, even as it gave the buoy the same wide berth as it had before. As far as thrills go, it’d have to do. Ibn Seddik said going any faster would make everyone on board nauseous.

The two men work for Sea Machines Robotics Inc., a three-year old company developing computer systems for work boats that can make them either remote-controllable or completely autonomous. In May, the company spent $90,000 to buy the Coast Guard hand-me-down at a government auction. Employees ripped out one of the four seats in the cabin to make room for a metal-encased computer they call a “first-generation autonomy cabinet.” They painted the hull bright yellow and added the words “Unmanned Vehicle” in big, red letters. Cameras are positioned at the stern and bow, and a dome-like radar system and a digital GPS unit relay additional information about the vehicle’s surroundings. The company named its new vessel Steadfast.

Autonomous maritime vehicles haven’t drawn as much the attention as self-driving cars, but they’re hitting the waters with increased regularity. Huge shipping interests, such as Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, Tokyo-based fertilizer producer Nippon Yusen K.K. and BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s largest mining company, have all recently announced plans to use driverless ships for large-scale ocean transport. Boston has become a hub for marine technology startups focused on smaller vehicles, with a handful of companies like Sea Machines building their own autonomous systems for boats, diving drones and other robots that operate on or under the water.

Teaching a boat to drive itself is easier than conditioning a car in some ways. They typically don’t have to deal with traffic, stoplights or roundabouts. But water is a unique challenge. “The structure of the road, with traffic lights, bounds your problem a little bit,” said robot boat trainer Michael Benjamin. “The number of unique possible situations that you can bump into is enormous.” At the moment, underwater robots represent a bigger chunk of the market than boats. Sales are expected to hit $4.6 billion in 2020, more than double the amount from 2015, according to ABI Research. The biggest customer is the military.

Michael Johnson, Sea Machines’ chief executive officer, said the long-term potential for self-driving boats involves teams of autonomous vessels working in concert. In many harbors, multiple tugs bring in large container ships, communicating either through radio or by whistle. That could be replaced by software controlling all the boats as a single system, Johnson said.

Sea Machines’ first customer is Marine Spill Response Corp., a nonprofit group funded by oil companies. The organization operates oil spill response teams that consist of a 210-foot ship paired with a 32-foot boat, which work together to drag a device collecting oil. Self-driving boats could help because staffing the 32-foot boat in choppy waters or at night can be dangerous, but the theory needs proper vetting, said Judith Roos, a vice president for MSRC. “It’s too early to say, ‘We’re going to go out and buy 20 widgets.’”

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