Today, Nellie Bly, the first tug-boat which is both autonomous and sustainable successfully accomplished a 1,000 – nautical mile trip thus setting a world record for the longest autonomous mission at sea. The test must prove that waterways are ready for remotely commanded boats.
Currently, there are a number of autonomous boats in development, though commercial ships sailing autonomously on water are only a few. Sea Machines, a US-based company started the “Machine Odyssey” Project by sending the autonomous, remotely controlled tug-boat Nellie Bly, named after the pioneering journalist who traveled around the world in 1889, on a 1,000 nautical mile (1,150 mile) voyage starting from Germany and around Denmark.
The tug-boat is equipped with “full onboard vessel control managed by autonomous technology,” but operated US Coast Guard-licensed officers 3,600 miles away at the control center in Boston, US and who were in charge of commanding operations during the record-breaking voyage through Europe. The aim is to show “global companies that operate fleets of cargo ships, tugs, ferries, and many other types of commercial workboats that they can integrate autonomous technology into their vessel operations for a host of technology-driven benefits.”
Sea Machines’ SM300 autonomous system mounted on the tug-boat is equipped with long-range computer vision. It’s a “sensor-to-propeller” system that employs “path-planning, obstacle avoidance replanning, vectored nautical chart data and dynamic domain perception” to control a voyage from start to finish. At the same time, it shows the remote human commanders information like live augmented overlays of the mission, vessel state, situational awareness, environmental data and “real-time vessel-born audio and video from the many streaming cameras.”
Another remarkable fact about the autonomous ship Nellie Bly is that it aims to be sustainable by using as its main fuel a renewable Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) biofuel, produced by Bunker One in Denmark, which is a safer alternative of the conventional fuel. At the stops throughout Denmark, the boat was re-fueled with HVO biofuel, which is supposed to reduce toxic emissions by 90%. This sustainable alternative represents around 70% of the fuel used by Nellie Bly or around 4,000 liters of biofuel throughout its entire record-breaking journey.
Sea Machines’ tug-boat is built by Damen shipyard in Denmark and is powered by a pair of outboard motors.