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Blog The Machine Odyssey: Unveiling the Journey

October 18, 2023

Two years after the groundbreaking 1,000 NM autonomous voyage, Peter Holm (center), the European Director of Sea Machines Robotics, shares his previously untold accounts of the tugboat that made history and the challenging seas that often accompany success.


Finding Nellie


The Machine Odyssey set sail on its remarkable journey in 2021, but Peter’s fascination with tugboats started much earlier, in 1997.


“Only 50 meters away from my old office in Esbjerg, there was always at least one prominent tug stationed. There’s just something about these vessels, around 30 odd meters long and powerful with 4,000 horsepower or more. Whenever the large ships would arrive, they would take us out on the tugs, allowing us to experience the intricate ballet choreography required to maneuver a vessel into a dock. It was truly impressive, and that’s where my fondness for tugboats began.” Peter recalls.


Fast forward to 2021. The concept for the Machine Odyssey project had been conceived—a daring plan to circumnavigate the coast of Denmark. There was only one vessel suitable for this audacious journey.


“We searched extensively for a suitable boat to collaborate with the international shipyard group, Damen. Initially, we considered a crew transfer boat, one of the smaller 12 pax, and were very close to acquiring one. Then, out of nowhere, came the Nellie Bly.”


During her transfer from Novorossiysk to Rotterdam, the vessel wasn’t yet named after the renowned American journalist. Instead, she was a humble tugboat that had seen better days.


Knowing that this tug will embark on an adventure that boldly pushes boundaries just like the journalist who broke the 1890 world record for solo global travel as a woman, the RN Temryuk then became the Nellie Bly.


Upon arriving in Hardingxveld, the team’s race against the clock to prepare Nellie for her journey began.


“By the time we bought her, there was only six weeks until the start of The Machine Odyssey. We then had her transferred from Rotterdam to the Damen Hardinxveld yard where our partners at Damen helped us equip her, pulling all the cables to the particular specification we had given. We, of course, installed and commissioned the SM300 Autonomous command and Control system which included a very large data collector media server and an early version of AI-ris, the SM400. From there, we had to bring her up to Cuxhaven where we started the tuning portion.“


Following rigorous testing and enhancements, the refurbished Nellie Bly, now proudly displaying the Sea Machines logo along her sides, was prepared to make history.


And We’re Off!


On the 30th of September, the Nellie Bly autonomously departed from Cuxhaven heading for her first port in Brunsbüttel with a captain aboard on standby to comply with maritime regulations. 


“We had a really good rapport with the Danish Maritime Authorities. We were some of the early ones that sat down with them in 2016 and we were the first ones to hand in the code of conduct for autonomous operations in Danish waters. The approval process then actually turned out to be fairly easy. The whole approval process of getting the DMA on board with this took 4 emails,” remarked Peter.


Navigating the tumultuous waters of Denmark, the vessel sailed with the SM300 controlled remotely from our headquarters in Boston.


“She’s not an easy lady to handle. You have to know what to do, but the system handles her perfectly.”


Even after Peter’s first interaction with Nellie, it became evident that the retrofitted SM300 was finely tuned and adept at controlling this specific vessel.


“So one of the things that you have to consider with this tug is that she has a draft of about 1.7 meters. Out of that 1.7 meters, 1.1 meters is the propeller. Considering how little of the vessel is on the water, most of its propeller. And so when this big propeller goes with rotation, that’s enough centrifugal force to force a boat into a turn. Even if you keep the rudder straight, the centrifugal force of the propeller itself puts her into a turn, which means that you’re gonna have to counter steer to to bring her over again just to go in a straight line. But with the SM300, you don’t have to worry about it because she just goes in a straight line while maintaining autonomy, collision avoidance, etc.”


From Denmark to the World


Apart from the SM300, the Nellie Bly was equipped with cameras for live streaming, enabling viewers worldwide to tune in via Vodafone 4G.


“The number of cameras on the vessel was not insignificant. There were quite a few cameras: forward-looking, aft-looking, 180 degrees FOV 90 degrees FOV and also included infrared. So there were, I think, six cameras on board.”


However, the response from viewers surpassed all expectations.


“We didn’t know what kind of levels to expect in terms of people viewing this. So we set it up so that we are capable of streaming to 5,000 people at the same time and we quickly saw much higher numbers than that.”


With a global audience now in tow, it was crucial for operations to run seamlessly, ensuring an open line of communication between the Nellie Bly and Sea Machines headquarters in Boston, where the vessel was being remotely commanded.


“We set up a hotline from the boat directly to the Boston office. A Voice over IP phone that ran over the Vodafone connection, like the red phone from the Cold War, basically. You pick up the dial, you’d be in contact with the Boston people immediately.”


The autonomous tug boat, Nellie Bly, in Hamburg

The Nellie Bly in City Sporthafen, Hamburg



Returning to Hamburg marked the triumphant end of Nellie’s voyage.


“Arriving in Hamburg again, receiving her with the whole family and everyone that was there. That was a big moment. The relief of seeing her come into Hamburg knowing that now we actually did it, we’ve done what we set out to do, what we said we would do. Now we can sort of relax.”


Peter attributes the mission’s success to having a system rigorously tested and specifically designed for the real-life marine environment.


“When you build it properly, that is, building stable systems for a marine environment, you’re capable of doing these monumental things. We have gone through great lengths using components that are already used in the marine industry. And we’ve gone through the whole process of having the system certified and tested for marine environments, including rattling, shaking, and salt water spray. These are the factors that are necessary for practical use.”


When questioned about the future of autonomy, Peter emphasizes the need not to reinvent the wheel but to assess the current state and make improvements.


“I don’t necessarily think that you have to invent new rules, but accept the systems as an equivalent to a human lookout. The big takeaway from all this is that this mission, The Machine Odyssey, obviously shows that it’s possible, that it’s now, that it’s here with autonomy. It’s something you can touch and feel right now. It’s not something that is in the future, not hypothetical, it’s not a science project. And we have to adapt and accept this technology so that we can truly make significant forward strides in the maritime industry.”


The Machine Odyssey serves as a powerful reminder of our team’s expertise and determination. Since the voyage, the SM300 has evolved through multiple software and hardware iterations, each step a testament to our commitment to continuous improvement. Introducing new technology into mainstream maritime practices is no easy feat, but our confidence has only grown stronger.


Join us on our journey as we continue to expand the horizons of maritime technology on our social channels (@seamachines).


Until our next voyage!