Marine Autonomy vs. Autopilot: Know the Differences

Sea Machines Blog

It’s no secret that today’s autopilot technology is an invaluable tool to both recreational boaters and commercial mariners. Autopilot systems enable a vessel to hold a course in light-to-moderate sea conditions. This functionality increases vessel course predictability, while reducing operator fatigue, a major causal factor in marine incidents. Like autonomous systems, autopilots are indefatigable and have an unlimited attention span for programmed tasks on the water. Both systems also allow a human operator to remain in control of a vessel and mission, and to take over operations at any point. What isn’t always understood, however, are the differences between today’s commercially available autonomous marine technology and best-available autopilot systems for vessels.

Read on to learn the distinguishing features of autonomous marine systems, and what types of missions can leverage this type of new technology.

Avoiding Collisions on the Water

The obstacle detection and collision and allision avoidance feature now offered with best-available autonomous marine systems is arguably the most valuable advantage over an autopilot. Not available with autopilot systems, these life- and mission-saving capabilities may use a combination of computer/camera vision, GPS, radar and AIS vessel traffic data to identify objects in an autonomous vessel’s path and then safely reroute the vessel around hazards before resuming the pre-planned path again – without the need for human involvement. This can be especially useful for mariners navigating during periods of low light or poor visibility.

Another point to consider is that universal reliance on autopilot systems has become a factor in vessel collisions and groundings. Such incidents are often due to a navigator being lulled into complacency of a system that is controlling their vessel but has no capability of sensing and tracking traffic or obstacles.

Adjusting Vessel Behavior between Waypoints Through All Sea Conditions

When put into “sea-keeping mode,” autonomous vessels adjust their movements and speeds between waypoints automatically, depending on the mission and environmental conditions that exceed the vessel’s pitch, roll and heave thresholds. When a crew is on board, an autonomous boat will slow speeds and soften turns to maximize human comfort and safety. During unmanned operations, a remote operator can program an autonomous boat to make sharper, faster and more aggressive maneuvers that increase productivity. An autonomous system will also intelligently increase speeds in wide, open domains and automatically reduce it in speed-restricted areas.

Integration with On-Board Vessel Systems

Today’s autopilots have evolved from basic course-holding systems to adaptive computer systems that can reduce fuel usage and increase voyage efficiency. Most systems integrate with the vessel’s compass, GPS and instrument system to ensure smooth control of the steering. In some cases, they learn the characteristics of a vessel for improved performance over time. Autonomous systems do this, too, but also integrate with a vessel’s AIS data, radar and on-board cameras, providing real-time situational awareness for operators on and off the vessel. Autonomous systems can connect with on-board payloads (like fire monitors, boom arms, ROV launch stations or cranes), enabling an operator to control vessel equipment from anywhere on or off the vessel. Finally, autonomous marine technology can be integrated with vessel maintenance systems that keep watercraft operating at the highest level of productivity.

Human Control of Vessels

An autonomous vessel can be operated with or without crew on board, unlike an autopilot that requires a human operator to be at the helm. With autonomous control, an offshore operator can set the course and speed of the vessel, execute a mission and remotely monitor operations via software that interacts with real-time camera feeds and sensors. Unmanned operations are especially valuable when crews would otherwise be subject to dull, dirty or dangerous work, factors that contribute to greater operational risk. Use cases for reduced crew or unmanned configurations include marine spill response, firefighting, patrol, hydrographic survey, government or military applications, dredging, aquaculture and others.

Which is Right for Your Operations?

The invention of the autopilot system has provided undeniable value to commercial mariners and recreational boaters for nearly a century. Far from an obsolete technology, the autopilot will in all likelihood continue to serve humans usefully on the water for years to come. However, commercial operators should be aware that more advanced technology is now commercially available and offers additional benefits. These include:

  • Obstacle detection and collision avoidance capabilities,
  • The ability to maintain course and speed during long missions and/or challenging conditions,
  • The automatic adjustment of vessel behavior between waypoints to suit a crew or mission’s needs,
  • Integration with on-board vessel systems, and
  • The option to remove humans from the vessel and monitor operations remotely with real-time situational awareness.

Sea Machines Robotics, an industry leader in the development of autonomous control and advanced perception marine technologies, made its SM300 autonomous-command and remote-helm control system commercially available in 2018. Already in use aboard workboats and vessels around the world, Sea Machines has demonstrated that the SM300 increases the performance, productivity and safety of commercial marine operations. To learn more about Sea Machines or how it’s systems can modernize your work on the water, contact us.