Your Questions About Marine Autonomy Answered

Sea Machines Blog

It’s not uncommon for Sea Machines to receive questions about autonomous marine technology and how such systems impact mariners and vessel operations. These questions range from basic (“Does autonomous translate to unmanned?”) to more complex (“What are the regulatory impacts of autonomous marine technology?”). Sea Machines is always happy to share our expertise and now shares our answers with you, below.

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Q: What are the levels of autonomy for commercial marine operations?

A: There are currently six levels of autonomy for vessel design and operation, per Lloyd’s Register. These include:

0: Manual Operation
No autonomous function. All decision-making made by a human operator.

1: Low Automation
All actions taken by human operators, but decision support tool can present options or influence decision making. Data is provided by systems on board.

2: Partial Automation
All actions taken by human operators, but decision support tool can present options or influence decision making. Data is provided by systems on or off the vessel.

3: Conditional Automation
Decisions and actions are performed autonomously with human supervision and authorization.

4: High Automation
Decisions and actions are performed autonomously with human supervision. High-impact decisions allow human operators to intervene and override. Note: This is where Sea Machines’ SM300 autonomous-command system lands. The SM300 automates highly manual, tedious or dull tasks that are often cited as the root cause of so many marine incidents. This autonomous system can be used to support on-board or remote crews or can provide fully autonomous, unmanned operations in controlled domains.

5: Full Automation
Rarely supervised operation where decisions are entirely made and actioned by the system.

6: Unmanned
Unsupervised operation where decisions are entirely made and actioned by the system during the mission.

Q: Does “autonomous” mean “unmanned”?

A: Autonomous operations, an SM300 product feature, allows operators to command manned or unmanned workboats from not only nearshore locations and neighboring boats, but also from offsite locations. This means a workboat operator who is not on board the vessel can command a workboat from nearly any location that offers a reliable network connection. This means that Sea Machines autonomous technologies enable unmanned operations or they can also be used for on-board crew support.

Q: How does autonomy support on-board crew and commercial marine operations?

A: Adding autonomy to workboats can reduce operational costs via increased on-water productivity time, precise mission control, reduced crew changes, and in some cases, lowered crew expenses. Further, autonomous systems automate repetitive or tedious tasks, are always on watch and never make mistakes, can remove mariners from hazardous or dangerous environments, and provide safety features such as obstacle detection and collision avoidance. Additionally, autonomous systems can automatically adjust vessel behavior between waypoints through all sea conditions (unlike an autopilot system), offering greater crew comfort and safety in turbulent waters.

Q: What’s the latest on regulations surrounding autonomous and unmanned vessels?

A: While the exact regulations are still being developed, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is currently exploring how safe, secure and environmentally sound Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) operations can be addressed. As progress is made, Sea Machines is fully engaged and cooperating to ensure customers meet or exceed with industry requirements. At this time, most Sea Machines customers are currently utilizing our systems to support crews during manned missions, with the exception of a few specialty use cases (such as the Sea Machines-enabled unmanned hydrographic survey work being conducted by Deep BV).

Q: When will the industry start seeing autonomous vessels and ships as standard fare?

A: The reality is that it’s happening now – and it’s happening faster than it is for other industries, such as land transportation. Many early adopters in the commercial marine industry have already begun leveraging autonomous and remote-helm control technologies for their vessels to improve operational safety, productivity and predictability. While fully unmanned ships are still on the horizon, the industry will see a rapid uptick of autonomous and unmanned, medium-to-large-sized workboats in the coming months and years. The result will be the start of an unprecedented era of safety, increased efficiencies and the introduction of myriad, new skill sets for mariners.

What questions do you have that we didn’t answer?

Sea Machines wants hear what questions you have about how our autonomy can be applied to your business to improve operational safety, productivity, predictability and efficiency. Contact us via the form below to connect with a team member.