Rolls-Royce may have captured the headlines with its vision of autonomous vessels, but small autonomous craft known as nautical drones are attracting serious attention—and serious investments.
Unsurprisingly, the military was an early adopter of the drone concept. One example is the Oscar-class stealth drone, designed by American military robotics experts 5G International and built by United Arab Emirates-based Al Seer Marine. The companies have created five generations of such drones, for everything from harbor security to anti-piracy and other missions.
The drawback is limited sea time—about ten days—before refueling. That led French sailor and journalist Christophe Guigueno to found the Dronautic organization. His definition of a Dronautic is a craft “navigating at the surface of the oceans, seas or fresh waters, without any crew onboard, in complete energy autonomy.” It can use any energy source except fossil fuels or nuclear power.
Guigueno also scheduled an around-the-world nautical drone race for June 2018. But he told NauticExpo e-magazine that “Sadly, the race is not going ahead. It was too difficult to find a budget and create a team. Nobody has ever been able to cross the Atlantic [with a drone]. In the Pacific, only Saildrone has been able to cross a part, from San Francisco to Hawaii. There is still much to do for a team to make a long-distance ocean crossing,” he added.
Could Ada 2 Make It Around the Globe?
The University of British Columbia’s SailBot team knows all about that, as team captain Serena Ramley explained to us. “We lost Ada, our first 5.5 m long nautical drone, in the Atlantic after she sailed 7785 km from St. John’s harbor in Newfoundland over three months.
“Our team’s long-term goal now is to make a round-the-world autonomous sailboat, Ada 2. She is designed to have greater self-control on more points of sail and be able to handle harsh conditions.” Ramley stated that Ada 2 could very well make it around the world, “but it’s not something that you can test in a laboratory, a factory, or on a quiet lake. You have to get out there into harsh oceans conditions.”
California-based Saildrone established proof of concept with its 2013 San Francisco-to-Hawaii run. Since then, its drones have been transformed into ocean and atmospheric measurement devices in close partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Saildrones have now sailed over 60,000 nautical miles, with missions in the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Bering Sea. In September 2016, it raised US $14 million to further expand its fleet and data services.
Autonomous Canal Vessels
Roboat, a collaboration between MIT, the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University, has raised US $27 million to build a fleet of small, autonomous canal craft.
They are designed to ferry passengers and packages around cities. The project is funded for the next five years, and the first boats are due for launch during 2017.Finally, Boston-based Sea Machines is taking a similar course. Its software allows prototypes to sail independently, avoiding obstacles. See a video here.