In a sign of things to come, an autonomous boat has just made a cargo run from the UK to Belgium.
The 12m-long Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV) SEA-KIT Maxlimer crossed from West Mersea to Oostende on Monday night, carrying a box of oysters.
It relied on a range of technologies to safely navigate what is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
The boat’s owner says the trip was the first commercial crossing of the North Sea to be made by an autonomous vessel.
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“This voyage has been months in the making, and to see it all come together is amazing,” said Ben Simpson of SEA-KIT International Ltd.
“[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. We’re tremendously excited to push the technology to its limits and see what we can achieve.”
On Thursday, the boat was making the return journey, again uncrewed but with a consignment of Belgian beer.
The SEA-KIT USV Maxlimer makes use of a communications and control system known as Global Situational Awareness via Internet.
This allows an operator to remotely access CCTV footage, thermal imaging and radar through the boat, as well as listen live to the USV’s surroundings and even communicate with others in the vicinity.
The Monday into Tuesday crossing took 22 hours in total; the vessel moves slowly at only a few knots.
The 5kg shellfish consignment is well below the maximum payload capacity of 2.5 tonnes, but it was the demonstration of capability that was the point of the exercise.
Several agencies supported the crossing, including the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Department for Transport, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the European Space Agency, as well as partners in Belgium.
Designed by Hushcraft Ltd in Tollesbury, Essex, SEA-KIT Maxlimer was originally developed to take part in the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, which is seeking novel methods to map the seafloor.
The USV is able to deploy and recover a sonar-equipped autonomous underwater vehicle that will acquire bathymetric data.
“We can do the same work as traditional vessels but using a fraction of the fuel, just 5%,” Mr Simpson told BBC News. “We’re passionate about reducing carbon emissions and we look forward to doing more demonstrations and making this commercially viable.”
SEA-KIT Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV)
- Dimensions: 11.75m long and 2.2m wide
- Propulsion: Hybrid diesel-electric system
- Range & speed: Up to 22,000km at 4 knots
- Can fit inside a shipping container
- But scalable. Larger versions being considered
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