Boston startup robotic tug completes 1,000-mile sea voyage in just seven days

Boston startup robotic tug completes 1,000-mile sea voyage in just seven days ...

The Nellie Bly made it.

The automated tugboat controlled by Sea Machines software was launched in Hamburg on Friday, the last stop on a 1,000-mile, 16-day voyage around the Danish coast, aimed to prove the feasibility of self-driving vessels.

Its about staying up with the times and ensuring that our industry is competitive going forward into the 21st century, Sea Machines chief executive Michael Johnson said.

Bad weather prevented the Bly from following its intended course up the west coast of Denmark. Instead, it took a shortcut through Germanys Kiel Canal, sailed around the Danish islands in the Baltic Sea, cruised past Copenhagen, and then walked along the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, which covered the same distance as the original route.

Two mariners were on board the ship in case human intervention was required. In addition, the Bly may be remotely controlled from Sea Machines' Boston headquarters. The ship sailed within 11 miles of the Danish coast and kept in contact with the firm via a Danish 4G wireless network.

Johnson said the ship steered itself for most of the voyage, using radar, radio beacons, and cameras to detect and avoid navigational hazards, including other ships, throughout the journey.

At the Boston control center, the voyage was overseen by sailors from the American Maritime Officers, a union representing officers working on US merchant ships. The partnership between Sea Machines and the AMO aims to ensure that human sailors will continue to have roles even if seagoing vessels become more automated.

We want to get an understanding of the technology, rather than read about it in a newspaper, said T. Christian Spain, AMOs vice president of government relations.

A typical freighter of the 1970s would have a crew of about 35 people, while todays ships are run by about 20 people. Despite this, Spain predicts that seagoing vessels will continue to rely on human crews long into the future.

Will there be less people on ships sailing the oceans once this technology matures? asked Spain. Probably. But thats a long way off.

We all understand that this is not a case of robots taking jobs away, said Johnson. Its about a retooling of the industry to do more and do it better, do the job quicker.

Johnson stated that automated cargo ships may reduce the risk of huge backlogs at US ports by reducing the need for massive backlogged vessels. Instead of building massive cargo ships that can only be offloaded at a handful of major seaports, smaller, automated ships could make frequent direct trips to smaller terminals like those in Boston or Portland, Ore.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawathala.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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