Maritime drones have a long voyage ahead before they become commonplace
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Image Credit: BAE Systems

Self-sailing boats are much more niche than ground and aerial options, but some production models are now coming out

Several new developments in unmanned marine vehicles show that while the sector is not as developed as its land and air based cousins, it too will continue to grow across a variety of applications in both war and peace.

True autonomy remains elusive, though. Sailing is just as fraught with unexpected scenarios as any other mode of transportation, compounded by the distances often involved and weather issues. No matter how rough or congested a road, it is predictable in a way a stormy channel at night is not. For now, even sailing an unmanned boat around the British Isles is, “a long-term ambition” in the words of the British manufacturer ASV that is collaborating with BAE Systems to develop a self-sailing speedboat out of an existing, manned design.

Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy

Unmanned “Roboats” developed by MT and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions will undergo extensive testing in that city next year along its famous canals. These self-sailing water taxis would be cousins to Uber or Google’s smart cars on lands. Larger freight-carrying applications have been considered, most notably by Rolls-Royce, but here there can be expected significant opposition from both carriers – afraid unmanned ships will be easy prey for bad weather and pirates – and sailors’ unions afraid that their members will be put out of a job.

Long-range cargo carrying, offshore platform work, surveillance, and oceanographic applications also present themselves. An un-crewed miniboat recently completed the journey from the US to the UK under its own power, and a larger solar-powered craft is currently sailing from the US to New Zealand, though, “its motor stops unexpectedly every once in awhile, ocean currents often slow the boat down to a crawl, and cloudy days cause the batteries to go empty.”

Another issue is that while removing the crew saves weight and space, vessels that are built too lightly to capitalize on these savings may prove unsuitable for sustained use, according to the FAU SeaTech Institute for Ocean Systems Engineering.

A number of unmanned surface attack craft have been researched over the past decade, though only the Israeli-made Protector USV from Rafael Advanced Defence Systems has been deployed in any numbers. Most unmanned military vessels are unarmed, instead used for reconnaissance and scientific applications where their long loiter times are best employed for consistent coverage. And unmanned submersibles have been used for years to descend into hazardous underwater environments when a crewed vehicle would prove too difficult to protect and maneuver to safely handle.

Military applications are probably the most advanced area of work: the aforementioned submersibles, after all, were designed with naval ends in mind before becoming famous in the exploration of the ocean depths and famous shipwrecks like the RMS Titanic. The British Royal Navy recently held trials, dubbed “Unmanned Warrior”, to test multiple drones for both surveillance and mine-clearing applications, alongside manned ships and also unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). This air-sea combined is very much the wave of the future for unmanned military systems off of dry land, given the potential for linking them up for combined operations off of shorelines and far out at sea.

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