The Nellie Bly is currently about three-quarters of the way through its mission: To become the first autonomously operated tugboat to complete a long-haul run.
Why it matters: While many tugs are already using autonomous technology for short ship-to-shore runs, it would be much cheaper and easier for long-haul vessels — like oil tankers, container ships and ocean-floor survey boats — to use autonomous tugs as their scouts.
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Driving the news: A Boston-based company called Sea Machines Robotics — a pioneer in autonomous tug technology — has outfitted a 36-foot tugboat called the Nellie Bly with the self-driving equipment it needs to circumnavigate Denmark, a voyage of more than 1,000 nautical miles (about 1,150 regular miles).
The Nellie Bly left on Sept. 30 and is expected to arrive at its destination on Oct. 16. (Fans can follow its progress on a dashboard that includes a live stream when the boat is in motion.)
A normal tugboat would have a rotation of people with hands on the wheel at all times. The Nellie Bly has only two people on board — for "safety and redundancy" — while a team from a control room in Boston keeps the boat on course.
So far, "we've been able to operate 99% autonomously," Amelia Smith, a spokeswoman for Sea Machines Robotics, tells Axios. "There've been periods of time when there have been people involved [in controlling the vessel], and that's OK."
The Nellie Bly — which is pushing a barge from Rotterdam, Netherlands, to Hamburg, Germany — has already avoided 117 obstacles that could have been potential collisions.
The big picture: The ability to rely on computer-run tugs for long-haul sea voyages is "going to make the industry more productive" and "put a lot more vessels on water," Michael G. Johnson, CEO of Sea Machine Robotics, tells Axios.
Autonomous tugs could make a big difference to vessels that clean up oil spills, survey the ocean floor for wind farms, and transport cargo around the world (like the ones that are currently piling up at U.S. ports).
"We are proving that we can command that same journey through a remote commander, somebody that's not on the tug itself," Johnson said. "Our goal is that 99% of the continuous control effort is being managed by the autonomy system."
The idea is that "the human has been elevated from somebody that's staring out the windows and holding the wheel throughout the journey to somebody who's now in charge of the operation."
The bottom line: Tides, water currents and the lack of marked lanes make autonomous driving a lot different in the water than on pavement, but the development of computer-controlled boating is happening at the same rapid pace that automakers are pursuing automated vehicles.
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