Autonomous surface vehicles (ASVs) are unmanned vessels that float on the surface of water and operate without a crew onboard. They can autonomously carry out a mission and can be monitored and controlled remotely if necessary.
This autonomous capability makes them very useful, less costly, safer, and more flexible than manned research vessels. The ability of ASVs to carry out a variety of tasks with little to no input from a pilot at sea, even under changing conditions, makes them immensely useful tools. They are much less resource-intensive and more flexible than the larger, fully manned research vessels.
A brief history of ASVs
As early as the end of World War II, unmanned surface vehicles were operated remotely to conduct minesweeping operations. One of the earliest actual ASVs was ARTEMIS, which was developed in 1993 as part of the MIT Sea Grant College Program. This scale replica of a fishing trawler collected hydrographic data in the Charles River in Boston, Massachusetts.
Since then, technology advances have enabled these ASVs to perform numerous tasks, including environmental and climate monitoring, passenger ferrying, commercial shipping, surveillance, inspection of bridges and other infrastructure, military operations, and seafloor mapping. Let’s take a look at some of the key use cases for ASV technology and a few of the noteworthy companies in this industry.
ASVs are often propelled by renewable energy such as solar, wind, and wave power, with rechargeable batteries as backup. These robots can cover thousands of miles and last for several months, traveling at speeds of around 3 to 8 knots. (One knot equals 1.15078mph or 1.852001kph.) Others use a hybrid propulsion system with a diesel motor to charge a 24V lithium battery that turns a propeller powered by an electric motor. The diesel runs only when it needs to charge the battery. This provides quiet, dependable, and powerful propulsion.
The vessels are outfitted with a suite of sensors for data collection, communications, position tracking, and navigation. These can range from high resolution cameras to fish trackers, sonar, lidar, or other imaging or specialized technologies. They often include the ability to recognize and avoid no-go areas, shoot flares, and return to home.
Boats and ships rely on charts for depth measurements so they can safely avoid sandbars and other underwater obstructions. This is usually performed with hydrographic survey technology from onboard ships and smaller boats. There is a global effort to map all of Earth’s seafloor by 2030 using ASVs as part of the Seabed 2030 Project.
ASVs can be used to measure depths in shallow waters and near piers and beaches that survey ships cannot reach. These ASVs can carry hydrographic surveying equipment and can use lidar in waters that are not too murky. Often, ASVs are launched from a larger survey vessel to multiply the amount of mapping that can be done and reduce time on location.
Surveys above and under water
Aquatic research institutes use ASVs to monitor and track marine life. Energy companies use hydrographic surveys in inland and coastal waters to search for resources. Defense systems are using ASVs to reinforce surveillance and reconnaisance along maritime borders. Oceanographers study meteorlogical data gathered from ASVs to analyze and understand the extent and effects of climate change.
Commercial shipping companies are starting to use ASVs to transport high value goods across waterways. Rolls-Royce has developed an ASV to be an autonomous passenger ferry in Finland as part of an effort to develop autonomous ships that carry people and cargo without an onboard crew.
One of the most well-known companies in this industry is Florida-based SeaRobotics, with 20 years of developing and selling remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and ASVs for numerous applications and clients. Competitors include Kongsberg in Norway, Ocean Aero in California, and the UK-based L3Harris subsidiary ASV Global. All of these companies provide autonomous oceangoing vessels for maritime surveys and a range of other tasks.
ASVs and the future
As ASV technology and applications progress, these vessels will perform more tasks that will enhance our knowledge, awareness, and understanding of the maritime world. They will also expand our ability to move people and products efficiently, quickly, and safely. The advent of ASVs available for rent from companies like SeaRobotics is likely to expand their use significantly over the next decade. You can expect this exciting technology and market to grow steadily for the foreseeable future as the industry evolves and new use cases prove attractive to end users. One day, an ASV may bring your dinner to your yacht or ferry you safely across a busy maritime channel.