The first ship designed to take autonomous operations offshore

Automated Ships Ltd and Kongsberg have announced plans for Hrönn, the world's first unmanned ship for offshore operations(Credit: Automated Ships/Kongsberg)

More and more autonomous boats are taking to the water, with the Royal Navy's surveillance craft tested in the Thames, Roboats roaming Amsterdam's canals, and the Solar Voyager's (unfortunately unsuccessful) attempt at crossing the Atlantic. Now the UK's Automated Ships Ltd and Norway's Kongsberg Maritime have announced plans to construct what they claim will be the world's first autonomous ship for offshore operations.

Dubbed "Hrönn", the vessel will be a light-duty utility ship designed for surveying, delivering cargo to offshore installations, and launching and recovering smaller remote-controlled or autonomous vehicles. It could find work in the offshore energy, fish-farming, scientific and hydrographic industries, and since a human crew isn't required the craft could be stationed near an offshore facility awaiting its cue to jump in and help, possibly working shoulder-to-shoulder with manned vessels.

"The advantages of unmanned ships are manifold, but primarily center on the safe guarding of life and reduction in the cost of production and operations," says Brett A. Phaneuf, Managing Director of Automated Ships. "Removing people from the hazardous environment of at-sea operations and re-employing them on-shore to monitor and operate robotic vessels remotely, along with the significantly decreased cost in constructing ships, will revolutionize the marine industry."

Initially, Hrönn will be remotely controlled in a Man-in-the-Loop Control mode instead of full autonomy, but the plan is to transition it towards that goal over time, as remote tests help the team develop the required control algorithms.

It isn't completely smooth sailing just yet, with the companies acknowledging that current regulations restrict autonomous watercraft to smaller boats for near-shore operations. Once constructed, the Hrönn will be put through sea trials in the Trondheim fjord testbed under the watchful eye of the Norwegian Maritime Authority and risk management company DNV GL, to have it classed and flagged.

Construction on the Hrönn will begin in January 2017 in Norway, handled by Kongsberg, which has previously helped out with the Eelume underwater maintenance snake-robot and conducting sonar searches for the Loch Ness Monster – which were, technically, successful. If all goes to plan, Hrönn will enter field operation sometime in 2018.

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