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Blog Autonomous Vessel Technology Enhances Oil-Spill Response and Recovery Efforts

May 10, 2018

Autonomous vessel technology is making news headlines around the world for its role in helping to revolutionize the maritime industry, especially in the shipping sector. It’s easy to see why – some reports, like McKinsey’s, predict that within 50 years there will be more than 50,000 autonomous ships hauling two to five times the amount of cargo today. While exciting, this type of buzz doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of what’s possible across other maritime industries.

Among the sectors that will benefit from advancements in autonomous surface vessel technology is the marine spill response and recovery industry. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, this critical segment annually responds to and cleans up 1.3 million gallons of petroleum spilled into U.S. waters alone from vessels and pipelines. Autonomous technology has the power to not only help prevent vessel accidents that can lead to spills, but can also facilitate better preparedness; aid in safer, more efficient clean-ups; and provide more meaningful, post-event learnings.

Read on to learn more about these oil-spill response benefits.


It is widely recognized that human error is the number one causal factor in maritime incidents, including those that lead to marine oil spills. But what if these human risks – miscalculations, tiredness, inattentiveness, distraction and others – could be mitigated?

The good news is that advancements in automated vessel control systems can make a difference. Similar to the collision-avoidance and safety alert features installed in today’s automobiles, marine robotics engineers are enabling new technologies on the water. The use of advanced camera software and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), are empowering maritime artificial intelligence (AI), and enabling new navigation tools for crew. Still reliant on human oversight, these autonomous marine systems provide vessel operators with real-time data for decision making, as well as critical alerts that can help prevent collisions, groundings and other incidents that can lead to injury, environmental harm and property damage.


Just as important as preventing incidents in the first place is the need to be ready with a speedy and effective response if a marine spill does occur. This is especially important in harbor and port areas, where vessels loaded with hazardous products frequently transit and shorelines can quickly be impacted by spills. To be on guard, ship-handling terminals can now deploy shore-based autonomous vessels. In an incident, these vessels can be electronically dispatched, allowing for the quickest possible response, without human intervention.


In the unfortunate event of a spill, the severity of an incident is in large part determined by the quality of the response. Vessels outfitted with autonomous technology are at an advantage during spill events. Some, which can be crewless vessels powered by remote-control technology, can be sent to an incident site to survey the spill size and spread, toxicity, currents and more. These autonomous vessels, equipped with environment assessment sensors, can provide feedback on air and water quality back to responders without risking their wellbeing. In spill response, this safety measure is the single-most important feature of autonomous vessel technology because it removes crew from known carcinogenic environments.


Once a spill survey is complete, safe recovery operations usually involve a large mothership which has storage capacity for the oil. These larger vessels are the perfect hosts for autonomous daughter craft, which can complement manned recovery efforts in numerous ways.

First, vessels can efficiently dual-tow boom around the spill area for containment and collection. With an autonomous daughter craft under remote control via a computer on the bridge of a mother ship, the vessel operator can easily control the speed and course of the daughter craft during spill-boom towing operations.

Second, the standard four-to-six-hour shift changes required for traditionally crewed daughter craft are no longer needed with an autonomous control system. Additionally, spill operations can continue 247, through the night, since no dangerous over-the-rail personnel transfers are needed on unmanned surface vessels (USVs).

These combined benefits can yield a 150-percent gain in operational efficiency, significantly reduced crew risks, and improved accuracy and tracking capabilities.

Third, when complimentary technologies, such as KOSEQ’s Rigid Sweeping Arms (a system that uses rigid arms to direct collected oil into a skimmer) or autonomous skimmers, are added to the solution, the recovery effort undergoes a positive multiplier effect with minimum crew.

All of this equates to less risky, faster and more effective pollution control.

Post-spill analysis

Just because all traces of petroleum or chemical have been collected from water doesn’t mean the spill recovery work is complete. After the event, an investigation will begin to determine the root cause of the incident and identify successes and failures. In the past, investigators have relied upon anecdotal evidence and manual data collection, methods inherently wrought with human error.

Now, with today’s automated technology installed on board response vessels, the data generated for the spill site survey, containment and collection is automatically recorded and saved for reference, analytics and archival. Lessons learned from data-based, computer-generated reporting is invaluable to future spill-prevention programs and recovery efforts.

Affordable and available now to vessel operators

Surprising to many is just how affordable and available this technology is to the maritime industry. No longer a prototype, Sea Machines’ autonomous vessel system SM300 is already on the market, and can be easily retrofitted aboard existing commercial vessels or added to construction plans for new ones at an accessible price point. The simple installation of the Sea Machines system typically requires no more than 10 components to be installed before it’s ready for use.

Other applications

Sea Machines’ automated vessel technology isn’t limited to oil and gas operations. It also can be applied to all types of commercial vessels, including ships, workboats, science and survey vessels, military and security craft, fishing and aquaculture boats, patrol boats, and fireboats.

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