Autonomous Vessel Readied for Oil Spill Response

A new autonomous sea-faring system aims to control oil spills before they get out of control.

Boston’s Sea Machine Robotics has announced that it has successfully demonstrated that its autonomous hardware and software can effectively guide the operation of an oil spill response vessel.

During a test conducted in coordination with the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) along the harbor of Portland, Maine, the Sea Machine’s system was mounted aboard a Vigor/Kvichak Marine Industries-built skimmer boat and tasked with performing several operations independent of any human control.

Over the course of several hours the autonomous craft displayed its ability to conduct electronic navigational charts (ENC)-based mission planning, autonomous waypoint and grid line tracking, autonomous control from an onshore location, and the operation of onboard tools. The machine even gave the impression that it could operate collaboratively with other autonomous vessels if it were bound to a robotic flotilla.

“Our operation of the world’s first autonomous, remote-commanded spill response vessel is yet another significant industry first for Sea Machines,” said Michael G. Johnson, CEO of Sea Machines “But even more important is the fact that we’ve proven that our technology can be applied to the marine spill response industry—as well as other marine sectors—to protect the health and lives of mariners responding to spills.”

Buoyed by the success of this test, Sea Machine will undoubtedly be moving forward with the development of additional capabilities for its autonomous seafarer and begin pushing its current model onto the market. With the U.S. hurricane season ramping up, and the potential for oil spills caused by such storms on the horizon, Sea Machine’s latest test is undoubtably good news for spill remediation. But the question still remains, can these systems be deployed fast enough to arrest the unpredictable ebb and flow of oil slicks as they spread across ocean waves? Will these machines be able to snap up loose crude before it descends into the deep?

If the answer is no, then whether autonomous or not, maybe these devices are just another ill-fitting and poorly functioning dressing for an ecological problem that won’t be solved by disaster response.