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Ocean-going robots that could revolutionize fishing, drilling, and science (bloomberg.com)
219 points by walrus01 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 91 comments

I work for a company that builds boats for many of the same goals in a more traditional form factor. The potential of autonomous marine vehicles is very high, and a very exciting field to be working in. https://www.asvglobal.com/

(If you're interested, we're hiring!)

Do you need anybody in the US? I'm a senior marine engineer, working on my masters in CS. I'm interested in larger UUV's and USV's in general.

Most of our software roles (one of the biggest teams we're growing at the moment) are located in the U.S.! We'd be very interested to hear from you.

OK, interesting, I'll reach out and inquire. Thanks

ASV global is an amazing company to work for.

A unique and very special group of people. I cannot recommend the place highly enough.

I’m hoping autonomous large scale plastics removal is something being looked into. This seems to be the only way to stem the plastic pollution explosion that has been occurring. I currently work in renewable energy industry but I can see myself wanting to move into this space in 5ish years due to the scale and impact of this problem is having and wanting to work with anyone working towards solutions.

How do your vessels comply with the international collision regulations? In particular, the requirement to 'at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions'?

As it happens my full-time job is working on our COLREGS path planning and collision avoidance :) Our primary focus at the moment are the rules concerning standing on/giving way with respect to other vessels. Some of the other rules, such as the one you mention, aren't being handled at the moment. However, we do have active projects working on the vision side of things to help get us closer to full compliance.

Good to know. My primary concern, as a sailor, is a drone having no way of seeing me. Not all yachts have AIS, and radar can be notoriously unreliable in certain conditions. The drones in the article are only a touch smaller than my yacht, and quite possibly capable of sinking it in the event of a collision. And while it may be relatively straightforward to program stand on/give way behaviour, some of the other aspects of the the colregs, and good seamanship, such as responding to sound signals seem more intractable.

Indeed, we have a previous team (robotics sailing team) member now working at ASV UK. A very exciting job

> “It’s fuel, consumables, and I don’t even want to tell you what our satellite bill is for data,”

Interesting - the circumference of the earth is roughly 40 thousand km. If these could manage to lift an antenna either 140m (or equivalently 70m for all participants) - distance to Horizon should be roughly 40 km. So a thousand boats could form a theoretical relay net around a theoretical line in the ocean reaching around the globe.

More to the point, with a fidonet-/usenet-like stop-and-forward system - it might be viable to get data to land quicker than waiting for the drone to arrive with hard drives - and with greater/cheaper bandwidth than via satellite?

There is a system of AIS to broadcast position, course and speed of marine vessels. Perhaps one could combine this with a mesh relay network to forward packets to boats in the direction of land. An AIS and long range WiFi-like system running on top of sailor’s masts would be a fun community to bring together. Software defined radios could come in handy to handle multiple frequencies and protocols.


something like http://aprs.org

If you care about speed aprs isn't your boat. 1200bps in almost all cases, zero FEC, bandwidth rapidly disappears depending on how many digipeaters overlap.

It's good for brief beacon based things but most of the RF tech around it is still stuck in the 80s.

Absolutely agree... but an aprs2 that incorporates some modern tech and modern thought could be interesting. What if every TNC was also a digipeater and they all coordinated to route their traffic via the shortest/best route to shore?

BTW: this conversation has convinced me to buy a LimeSDR Mini. It can handle Marine VHF, (probably AIS with a GPS source) and even LTE. I figure having a couple of these might be great on a boat since you can reuse them for a variety of purposes and having backups are key. They even fly LimeSDRs on micro satellites.

If high endurance air drones are advanced enough, you can coordinate sea and air nodes to make a mesh that avoids clouds and line of sight all-together so you don't have to string the network over the sea level horizon. Maybe have autonomous platforms that allow both to refuel too if they use hybrid systems.

Balloons, maybe.

Apart from wind moving it to the side, it would not be a fundamental problem to fly a tethered blimp with a pair of single mode fiber and a thin aluminum wire that is driven in resonance [0] with the surface capacitance the blimp has, relative to earth, up to about 20-50 km. The breaking length of the fiber comes out at ~120 km, and you have to spare some tensile strength to hold the aluminum wire.

This is not hard, and for 8km height you could manufacture them for under $2k/piece. Even if they'd be made to work with hydrogen, as that raises the demands on the construction. If you'd find the FCC to be willing to allow something like this and are able to handle both thunderstorms and just the general wind load on the tether, this should not be hard.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single-wire_transmission_line

Lightning + aluminium wire is a problem. I suspect an electrical current will form in the wire even w/o lightning because of static electricity. Also the wire is a hazard if it breaks and falls down. It will probably cut everything in its path.

Yes, probably. Maybe you'd have to fly it at a place where you don't need to worry about lightning. But that seems rather restricting. Though, for high-bandwidth applications, it might then be necessary to fly local power, and have the whole system sit over the cloud layer, at about 50km.

Regarding the damage from it when falling down, you have to remember that each fiber weighs 50g/km, and the wire is also below 1kg/km, even for rather low heights. This should not be a problem, considering the ease of breaking an optical fiber optic at any remotely sharp edge. A small bird (the size your cat can catch) could probably snap it if he hit's it with some force.

It will create a lightning discharge path regardless if you fly it over the cloud layer.

1 kg/km • 50 km • 9.8 m•s^-2 • 50 km = 24.5 MJ

10 MJ = kinetic energy of the armor-piercing round fired by the assault guns of the ISU-152 tank

I think that's just about enough energy to cut just about any living thing in half. Maybe it work if the cable was made of spider silk or Kevlar.

If you are at a high enough altitude clouds would never get in the way so solar power works much better.

Careful, you're almost a satellite now and the original idea was to eliminate the cost of satellite data! Alternatively, if such a UAV was cheaper than a satellite, that would be a whole competitive business in itself!

That's interesting. 70 meters is a pretty dang tall aerial for something with that small a footprint to hold aloft, though. That plan also limits their range of movement severely to keep the network intact, but I guess they could use satellite as a backup.

Maybe a kite of some kind, but how do you reliably launch and retrieve it? I dunno, I think in practice the satellite may be cheaper.

Or a blimp with a thin wire in resonance and two fibers? If you don't need much power, the thing should weigh in at under 50g, which would allow a blimp the size of a large kitchen trashcan (50l).


Disposable paper hot-air balloon for lift, retractable antenna? Or perhaps better yet: disposable paper kite?

Your comment, while I assume you earnestly meant, is enigmatic of the gap between what the lay person may think works at sea and the very harsh and unforgiving reality of the Sea.

Source: my father was an engineer at a marine engineering company

Hehe. I left out that I was thinking of a system that used all the environmental monitoring to deploy such a disposable contraption only in calm/good weather - but then it would not be a substitute for satellite data - mote an opportunistic system for bulk backup.

I like the wording of your comment, but I think you mean emblematic instead of enigmatic.

Yes, you're right. That's embarrassing.

Caveat wind issues, raising a balloon would work. But still you would need a big enough balloon to hold 70m of coax up and the antenna. On the plus side you could slowly electrolysize water with the solar panels to fill your balloon with hydrogen :-). So you would only need to carry spare envelopes rather than a bunch of helium tanks.

The engineering choices are interesting here.

Can you cover most conditions with a balloon and a kite? Can you make a kite which can be inflated to turn it into a balloon? (Looks like clever people have already been here: Kytoon – a balloon with a couple panels of fabric to make it behave like a kite in wind and a balloon in calm.) A two string kite can also be used for propulsion in many conditions.

Depending on transmitter power, I have to think that in 2018 a transceiver is lighter than 70m of coax cable compared to a power pair. Put a relay at the top and talk to it from the boat. (10 watts over 30ga for 70m at 48v is about 66% efficiency for a mass of only 30 grams. You can trade off mass with power, wire size, and respect for the life of you maintenance technicians. The product always looks better at 200 volts!)

While crazy, you could just use radio up to the blimp too ;) In fact, apart from the pollution aspect, you could just launch a balloon with a radio and let it drift... As a disposable radiointervju in the sky...

You could build this type of system with more sparsely placed nodes if you used HF communications, at which frequencies the waves reflect off the ionosphere [1].

[1]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skywave

In most political regions the max data rate for HF transmissions is very, very low.

We build an open-source sailing boat (MIT license) https://blog.sotonsailrobot.org and we will host World Robotics Sailing Championship this year https://www.roboticsailing.org/2018/

Younger researchers no longer want to spend that much time at sea, cut off from most of the internet. “It’s really hard to get the younger generation excited about going to sea,” says NOAA’s Meinig. “People think it’s romantic and then find they can’t text their friends and don’t have access to hundreds of channels of TV. It’s just a different style of life.”

Fascinating. I guess the Saildrone is the ideal solution.

I wonder if this is really a generational thing vs a different type of person winning NOAA grants than in the past. Ie, people more interested in hype, advocacy, networking, etc than science.

Have an upvote, because I think you're bang on target.

That sounds like an oversimplification (read: a poor excuse).

Put another way, I bet the pay is low and the the on-ship amenities lacking. Expecting ppl to give you something for nothing isn't SMS's fault.

It seems on-board amenities exactly what's being talked about (and, yes, arguably over-simplified) here.

Or are you making a distinction between luxuries and basic living conditions (space, privacy, quality/healthfulness of food)? For some people, no level of internet access would make hot-bunking tolerable.

> "For some people, no level of internet access would make hot-bunking tolerable."

Completely agree. But in this case, those are not the ppl you want working for / with you anyway.

Why would that trade-off make someone an undesireable employee/colleage to you?

Was the problem with my choice of the Internet (which could be used for work) for my scenario instead of tv channel choice?

"Revolutionize fishing" seems to mean selling data to fisheries so they can pull even more fish out of the ocean.

Yeah this was my first thought as well. :( Like we need more effective methods of raping the oceans. Hopefully the scientific research will cover the potential drawbacks.

One upshot of better tech is significantly less bycatch, at least in regions where per-species quotas are strictly enforced. I'm told the latest sonars can distinguish both the species and age of fish in a shoal.

Another neat autonomous boat concept is https://www.liquid-robotics.com/wave-glider/how-it-works/ which uses waves for propulsion.

A friend of mine runs this one in Cambridge, really amazing tech:

Autonomous Marine Systems


Saw the video yesterday on YouTube. I wonder what happens if they get into very strong winds or very strong swell - if they tip over, do they get up by themselves? What happens if they submerge?

Apparently they figured out how to do it, but my question is, how exactly are they doing it?

I've actually seen one of these at sea. Not this particular one but a similar autonomous vessel. Large swells aren't a problem. If it floats a swell will pass under it. Breaking swells are a concern and usually occur under gale force winds.

A boat has a displacement that is less than water. Which is how it floats. A small weighted bulb in the keel keeps everything pointing upright. You can mitigate the forces on a sail through 2 ways: heeling is when the entire boat leans to one side, heading up is pointing the wing sail into the wind.

Wingsails are pretty well understood and used extensively in racing. Volvo Ocean Racing (VOR) and America's Cup are 2 examples.

Back when I was a kid sailing dinghies, we did a competition on the lake of the designer of Miss Nylex. An early and primitive wing sail design, it still kicked ass in high winds and could apparently tow a waterskier.


Nice, thank you for taking the time to explain this!

The video said everything on it was 100% submersible and saltwater-proof, and then all you need is an air bubble in the "sail" and it will eventually float up with the right side up, no?

Well, these have a keel that generally keeps them upright. It's almost certain they've been designed to be self righting if they do get knocked over by a breaking wave. Likewise, they float, so temporary submerging shouldn't be much of a problem provided they're sealed well.

One advantage of this kind of wing sail is it's "self trimming". With the tail/tab in neutral position, it'll always weathervane to follow the wind. With the tail tab deflected somewhat, it'll weathervane with some amount of angle of attack. So even in very heavy winds, all it needs to do is back off on the angle of attack and it should be in a relatively stable state.

Isn't that what a keel does?

The keel of a modern sailboat does provide "righting moment" to help keep the boat upright, but it's also used to provide hydrodynamic lift in opposition to the sails so that the boat can sail somewhat upwind. These two goals have to be balanced against each other and against performance in the context of mass and friction.

I suppose though a drone has more flexibility in design parameters by not having people and people-related supplies on board.

Yes, but a keel is also limited right? It's still possible to tip over and - if potentially submerged, not come back up?

But to be honest, I have very little knowledge on this topic, so maybe a keel is all it needs!

As long as it not fills with water, I'd say it will right it self.

On a traditional boat the sails can dig down in the water and needs to be released rather quickly, and you don't want the hatch to be open, but neither of this seems to be a problem here.

Theoretically, a sailing sensor drone could even be constructed as a submarine, sailing on the surface in regular conditions but able to dive into the currents if conditions get too harsh. It would not be able to maneuver or communicate while submerged, but it could resurface on a timer, or use sensor data to identify to make an educated guess. (This could also qualify as a piracy countermeasure, should the drones get targeted for parts)

I would think this would be a perfect application of a deep, full keel (which offers the maximum stability and self-correction, but in a manned sailboat tends to be too deep to bring into certain places which is why so many sailboats don't have full keels.)

That said, I don't know much about sailing other than it being on my bucket list of things to learn so I've been reading up on it, and I've been actively searching for a good simulator that works on gnu/linux... (anyone know of one?)

you are correct, the keel will help the sailboat to center itself.

Have a heavier pole underwater?

> They’ve all come back without a single scratch, just a beard of barnacles



Whoa, if they mandated that on boats, I wonder if it could stop the spread of invasive zebra mussels between lakes.


One way they spread is by sticking to boats that owners take to a different lake without cleaning them. Cleaning isn't optional, but since it takes work it is unrealistic to believe everyone is going to actually do it. So despite campaigns to prevent it, zebra mussels keep spreading.

Many of the traditional anti-fouling treatments are poisonous to marine ecosystems. I've heard some evidence that efficacy is inversely proportional to environmental friendliness with real world commercially available coatings.

Might be a solution in search of a problem: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/409710/whale-inspired-win...

I couldn't figure out whether these things follow the rules of the road. Do they at least have AIS receivers?

I'm so jelly! ("jealous")

I've been (slowly and painfully) working my ways towards constructing a self-reproducing robo-boat swarm for a few years now, ever since learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

My idea is to set up a simple artificial ecosystem of interacting bots that collect and recycle oceanic trash to create more of themselves. This permits exponential growth, making it realistic to attempt to tackle such a large-scale problem from a relatively tiny "nucleus".

I want to use Molten salt oxidation [1] to convert trash to "synthesis gas" [2] then feed that through a water column to convert CO+H2O to CO2+H2. Recover the hydrogen for power (more power, the MSO reaction is exothermic) and feed the carbon dioxide to algae tanks. The algae can be processed to create both plastic membranes and a kind of ocean-water-proof glue. Rather than build boats, you make spheroids out of the plastic and glue them together to make foam. (I call it "spittlebug architecture" [3].) Foam and tendons allow you to make e.g. artificial hydras [4] which can be attached at their bases to long conduits (also make of glue-foam) to collect and sort trash and carry it (via peristalsis) to the MSO unit. The long hydra-lined conduits can be arranged in a (huge) spiral which can then be driven to rotate by positioning of sails and rudders embedded in the conduit. The MSO unit would be in the center.

The idea, at every stage, is to do and use the minimum of action and materials and energy throughout the system to maximize scalability and throughput-per-unit.

The outputs of the system will be power, fresh water, building material, and packets of recovered molecules (the ones that aren't made of H C or O) to hopefully be reused.

Glue + membranes + geometry + pressure = An open-ended variety of light-weight rigid structures with a very easy construction method. [5]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten_salt_oxidation

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthesis_gas

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spittle_bug

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydras

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inflatable_air_cushion & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air-supported_structure

You get an upvote for the sheer audacity of this project. Hope you make good progress, good luck.


It's been slow going, working mostly in my spare time, but I'm committed. I've got two boats now for hosting the initial "kernel", and some time this summer to double down. One benefit of taking so long is that neural networks et. al. have taken off in the meantime and that should solve a few problems that might otherwise have been hairy.

I wonder how long before drugs are smuggled with drone ships.

You may find it interesting : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narco-submarine

Minus a couple of years, that is already a thing. Not sail drones though, as far as I know.

I know about drones smuggling small time packages in prisons and such.

I was talking about a drone shipping tonns of drugs from South America to USA or Europe.

Yes, that was what I meant too.

Exactly my thought. They could have these produced for cheap and throw an army of them into the oceans. Pretty sure the new Escobar equivalents are already working on it.

As implied above, the tech isn't the problem. However, Lumbergh equivalents probably shoot them down with narratives like Seinfeld's Michigan Recycling scam [0].

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1blsZxXDCU

Which is to say- If the drones are too cheap, they probably don't move enough product to justify operator costs and loss risk from conditions. If the drones are bigger, they pose loss risk from coast guard.

Given that cigarette boats were the 80's maxima for sea transport, I suspect that - with current capabilities - the risk/cost/reward for sea drone transport of drugs is saddle shaped. <edit to include the third dimension of the saddle>

A submarine was already caught doing it

manned submarines though I assume?

Would they be able to clean up all the plastic and trash in the oceans? That's the robot I want :)

What kind of permission/license is needed for such craft in national/international waters?

Totally off topic aside: I’m seeing a lot of Bloomberg links these days and I’m constantly “over the free limit.” Sometimes the “web” strategy works, and sometimes it doesn’t (like this article for me).

If I add up all the sources that are typical for HN it’s quite a lot. Bloomberg alone is $40/Mo now long term, plus nytimes, Washington Post, economist, FT, etc.

I already pay for two of these — I don’t feel the need for yet another, and I’m not going to start browsing Bloomberg for non-linked content.

What I’d like is the ability to pay for a universal “HN” articles membership to ANY website. If it’s linked from HN, let me read the full article, but it’s ok if I can’t browse the website.

A lot of publishers effectively do this for Facebook for free; why not for smaller aggregators for a membership?

That's a good idea, but in the meantime: http://archive.is/DoZFv

or delete the cookies

There's more then one way to skin a cat, but none of them work 100% of the time for paywalls

What’s next? Car drones, rail drones and sub-marine drones? Bike drones?!

I imagine autonomous bicycles using gyroscopes to stay stable, highly integrated camera's with environment comprehension (Waymo off-the-shelf chips) to redistribute them over the city at night.

I love the vision of a fleet of riderless bikes taking themselves to where the system anticipates their need for the next day.

However, I also suspect that there will be a lot of car/automated-bicycle accidents since bicycle visibility at night isn't particularly high, and relies a lot on the rider's choice of visible clothing.

That's seems the easiest to solve, just put lights on the bike. There are already many products for this, some of them very visible.

Drone rickshaw might actually be a nice, useful summertime ride.

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