Belgian autonomous ‘solar boat’ to cross the ocean
Four Belgian engineers are going to have a shot in May 2019 at having the first solar boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean completely autonomous from Sable-d’Olonnes (France) to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The boat will find its own way during the 80 to 100-day journey.
The four, Pieter-Jan Note (naval architecture), Andreas Belderbos (energy engineering), Julien Meet (communication and sensors) and Bertold Van Den Bergh (systems and software) devoted most of their free time to the Mahi Project so far.
They found support from FLOAT (FLanders On the Automated shipping Track) initiative of the Flemish government, bringing together universities, the Antwerp Port and North Sea Port and the Antwerp Nautical College in looking into the possibilities of autonomous shipping transport of the future.
The Mahi – called after the green-yellow mahi mahi tropical fish also known as dorado or dolphin – is a four metre long and 1,2 metre wide wig-shaped boat made of composite materials with a one metre deep fin keel like a sailboat, to stabilize the boat.
The boat’s surface is covered with solar cells to recharge the lithium-ion batteries in the hull that deliver the power for the electric motor to propel the vessel. It’s equipped with a number of sensors and has an AIS (Automatic Identification System) receiver on board to locate ships in an area up to several nautical miles around.
AIS uses maritime radio frequencies to automatically emit data of a ship (its position, name, course, load, destination…) to all other ships in the vicinity and is obligatory for all professional commercial boats, but not for all pleasure craft (yet). Mahi can interpret the AIS data to change course to avoid collisions.
However, that won’t be the only hurdle to take, as not everything that floats on the ocean waters emits an AIS signal. Often containers fallen of ships form a floating hazard, but also tons of floating plastic, fishing nets and all kinds of rubbish.
The propeller getting stuck by floating plastic bags, rope or nets are feared the most by the designers. Although the keel and hull are designed to lead floating rubbish around the boat, it is something that is very difficult to exclude. An underwater camera will make a shot of the propeller to check two times a day.
Transmitting data every 15 minutes
The onboard computer with the self-developed software will steer and monitor the boat’s systems using its sensors and GPS data. Data about the boat’s position, speed and battery voltage, among others, is sent every 15 minutes ashore via a satellite connection.
The Belgian ‘Mahi’ won’t be the first ‘robot boat’ to cross the Atlantic autonomously, though, but maybe the first ‘solar robot boat’ to do this. The first successful attempt was achieved early September 2018 by a Norwegian company, Offshore Sensing AS with its ‘Sailbuoy Met’, a 2,4 metre long sailing boat in the so-called ‘Microtransat Challenge‘.
Challenge for robot boats
The latter is a ‘challenge for robot boats’ of limited size (max 2,4 metres) so they won’t be a hazard for ships out there on the seas when they collide into it. The Sailbuoy Met started off in Newfoundland, Canada, to reach the Irish coast after two and a half months of sailing autonomously.
So far, more than 27 known failed attempts of robot boats crossing the Atlantic Ocean were registered. Failed, due to all kinds of reasons from entanglement in fishing nets, storms, shark attacks to getting lost in the vast ocean.
Commercial and military
Currently the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is investigating the impact for safety and security of the deployment of larger autonomous ships in the near future.
A thing that is believed to happen rather in the near future, as technology is getting more and more mature and companies are already marketing autonomous surface vehicles for commercial or military use (like mine-hunting) or as oceanographic survey ships or weather buoys.
Playground for autonomous ships
The marine division of the British engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce, for instance, is working on an autonomous system that could equip boats without any crew. The company signed a deal with Google to access the Google Cloud and its automatic learning program last year.
Offshore of its large southern harbour Zhuhai, China is creating the world’s largest playground for testing self-sailing, unmanned ships of the future. So it seems playtime is over for autonomous boats.