Autonomous tugboat will make a trailblazing 1,150 mile voyage

The test is designed to see if waterways are ready for remotely commanded boats.

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'Machine Odyssey' tugboat will make a trailblazing 1,150 mile autonomous voyage
Sea Machines/Boston Aerials

There are a number of autonomous boats under development, but we've seen few commercial self-driving ships plying waterways. Now, a company called Sea Machines has announced that it will send an autonomous, remotely commanded tugboat on a 1,000 nautical mile (1,150 mile) "Machine Odyssey" voyage around Denmark. 

The tug ("Nellie Bly") will have "full onboard vessel control managed by autonomous technology," but be operated under the authority of officers located in the US. The aim is to show "global companies that operate the fleets of cargo ships, tugs, ferries, and the many other types of commercial workboats that they can integrate autonomous technology into their vessel operations for a host of technology-driven benefits."

Autonomous tugboat will make a trailblazing 1,150 mile voyage
Sea Machines

The tug will be steered by Sea Machines' SM300 autonomous system 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."

It appears that the Nellie Bly will set sail ahead of Yara's crewless electric cargo ship that's supposed to launch by the end of 2021. That vessel will use a 7MWh battery and 900kW propulsion system to steam at 13 knots from Herøya to Brevik, Norway — a distance of around 13km (8 miles). Sea Machines' tug is built by the Dutch shipyard Damen and appears to be powered by a pair of outboard motors.

When Sea Machines' tugboat launches, you'll be able to follow it yourself as the voyage will be streamed 24/7, the company said. It's set to launch on September 30th from Germany.

Update 12:50PM ET: Updated this story to note that the boat will be taking off on September 30th, a day earlier than originally planned.

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Autonomous tugboat will make a trailblazing 1,150 mile voyage