SPECIAL REPORT
Yachting World|April 2021
SAM FORTESCUE ON SELF-SAILING TECHNOLOGY
SAM FORTESCUE
Vessel not under command’ looks set to take on a new meaning, with the race to develop a new generation of boats that are sailed by artificial intelligence (AI). But what will it mean for other water users?

Today we’re all familiar with the concept of autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars are the next development frontier, and the tools needed to make them a reality are being intensively tested by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech firms. Less well known is the similar trajectory being followed in the marine industry.

So-called unmanned autonomous vehicles, or marine drones, are attracting research interest from everyone from backyard inventors up to engineering behemoths like Rolls-Royce. They come in all shapes and sizes, with intended purposes varying from meteorology and oceanology, to cargo, surveillance and defence.

From the outside, some resemble normal sailing multihulls. You might never realise there is no human aboard Artemis Technologies’ self-sailing cat, for example, with its 50-knot top speed. The Belfast-based company has based its design for a 45m-long Autonomous Sailing Vehicle (ASV) on technology developed for the 2017 America’s Cup.

With two fixed wing sails, the catamaran rises up on four foils and hits top speed in just 20 knots of wind. Regenerating propellers on two of the foils charge a large battery bank on board, and that harvesting of energy brings the boat speed back down to 30 knots. In lighter 8-knot winds, the boat still foils at 20 knots, and electric motors spin propellers that bump the speed back up to its optimum 30 knots. Artemis believes it can be used as a constant-speed commercial vessel for delivering cargo.

Meanwhile, in Plymouth, a consortium including IBM is testing a new Mayflower, a 15m power trimaran studded with solar panels, that should be capable of operating independently for months at a time. It has a top speed of 10 knots achieved with an electric motor drawing power from batteries topped up by solar. The purpose of the boat is to collect oceanographic data, with sensors on board collecting information on marine mammals, ocean plastics, sea-level mapping and maritime cybersecurity.

SEE AND AVOID

The sheer size of such boats, and the astonishing speed of Artemis’s ASV, highlights the need for safe navigation. Such vessels carry a plethora of collision avoidance systems. While AIS technology has revolutionised collision avoidance over the last decade, it is not universally adopted among fishing vessels or yachts. Inshore, where marine traffic is at its most dense, many dayboats will lack even a radar reflector. Other solutions, therefore, were required.

On Mayflower computing giant IBM has installed its PowerAI Vision technology to crunch the inputs from onboard cameras that use both normal and infrared light. In the development phase, so-called ‘deep learning’ is enabling the computer to spot navigational hazards from buoys to floating debris. This complements radar and laser range-finding to help the boat’s software decide on the best tactic for avoidance.

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