The Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator, or BEN isa 13-foot diesel-powered unmanned surface vehicle that has an endurance of over 16 hours and is equipped with hydrographic survey equipment. Here, BEN is shown underway from NOAA Ship Fairweather off Point Hope, Alaska, July, 2018. Image via NOAA
While the maritime world struggles with COVID-19, one industry segment continues to grow at a rapid pace: Marine Autonomy.
With companies like the MIT startup, Blksail completing autonomous trials remotely, autonomous inland shipping companies like ZULU Associates preparing to enter the New York market, and larger scaleups like Sea Machines closing large strategic investment deals, the rapid growth of autonomous solution providers is impressive.
The U.S. Navy and the NOAA has also made rapid progress in vessel autonomy by signing a new agreement to jointly expand the development and operations of unmanned maritime systems in the nation’s coastal and world’s ocean waters.
“With the strengthening of our ongoing partnership with the Navy, NOAA will be better positioned to transition unmanned maritime technologies into operational platforms that will gather critical environmental data that will help grow the American Blue Economy,” said Tim Gallaudet, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator.
NOAA conducts research and gathers data about the global ocean and atmosphere to forecast weather, predict climate, protect the ocean, and sustainably manage marine resources. These missions rely on new technologies such as unmanned systems to improve data gathering.
“This agreement lays the foundation for collaboration, engagement, and coordination between NOAA and the U.S. Navy that our nation has never seen before,” said Rear Adm. John Okon, of the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (NMOC). The NMOC’s mission is to define the physical environment to deter aggression, maintain freedom of the seas and win wars.
The new arrangement corresponds with rapid expansion and innovation in the use of unmanned systems across the government, academia and private enterprise.
The new pact formalises the Commercial Engagement Through Ocean Technology Act of 2018, which directs NOAA to coordinate with the Navy including research of emerging unmanned technologies. Additionally, this agreement is among NOAA’s follow up actions from the November 2019 White House Summit on Partnerships in Ocean Science and Technology.
One reason for the growth in autonomous solutions is a large number of mariners unable to sign off ships because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. While smarter ships might help with these problems, many of the deals we are seeing today are not positioned to replace commercial mariners. ZULU Associate’s move into New York is focused on cargo that currently moves on trucks, the US Navy and NOAA are not commercial entities, and the MIT startup blkSAIL is investing in ways to empower, not replace mariners.
“While the blkSAIL system can already operate fully autonomously, that is not our goal.” said blkSAIL founder Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik, “Our AI and Decision Support tools that enable safer, more sustainable, and more profitable industry with no CAPEX and no workflow changes.”
It is unclear how the broader industry will perform in the post-coronavirus world but it is clear that marine autonomy will play a large and critically important role.