September saw the launch of what may well be the world’s first ocean-going survey vessel to offer both manned and unmanned operational capability. USV Maxlimer is primarily the brainchild of UK company Sea-Kit International, which developed this first-in-class craft to serve as an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) mothership.
“Keeping humans out of harm’s way is very much one of the guiding principles of the concept,” Ifor Bielecki, executive director at Sea-Kit, tells Ship & Boat International. “In the commercial offshore industry, where safety is king, the only way to truly mitigate risk of injury is by removing humans from the vessel completely.”
AUVs and ROVs have become common within the offshore sector in recent years, and various dive support vessels have been developed to support them. However, Bielecki points out, the Sea-Kit class is not intended to replicate these boat types. “USV Maxlimer is designed much more along the lines of being a ship, rather than a boat,” he explains. “She is significantly bigger and heavier and this makes an enormous difference: for example, smaller and lighter vessels will be limited by weather, with sea state 5 being a common restriction. On our second sea trial, we took the Sea-Kit out in far worse conditions.”
USV Maxlimer was constructed in aluminium by Essex-based boatbuilder Hush Craft Ltd, a relatively new construction specialist formed by former CTruk managing director Ben Simpson. Hush Craft also produced the vessel’s diesel-electric hybrid system, comprising two DC generators powering a pair of 18kW engines, driving twin fixed-pitch, 400mm-diameter, electric azipod propellers. The Sea-Kit is also fitted with a pair of 5kW bow thrusters. This arrangement enables a range of 12,000nm and an endurance of 270 days, depending on speed, with top speed calculated to be 8knots.
The 11.75m loa Sea-Kit has the capacity for a payload of 2.5tonnes, meaning that not only can the ship carry, launch and recover most commercially available AUVs, but it can also be deployed for other research and survey-related tasks, such as multibeam survey missions. Bielecki comments: “The overall payload area can be changed depending on the mission the vessel is built for. For the multibeam mapping variant, we can make additions to the hull to ensure even better speed, range and endurance.” The entire vessel can be fitted inside a single standard ISO 40ft (12.2m) shipping container.
To realise a workable means of guaranteeing remote-control and autonomous operations, Sea-Kit teamed up with Kongsberg Maritime, the latter supplying its K-Mate Autonomy Controller solution to USV Maxlimer. The K-Mate was developed by Kongsberg in collaboration with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, and effectively functions as the ship’s ‘brain’ during autonomous operations. Bielecki elucidates: “A mission plan is uploaded into the K-Mate system and the Sea-Kit will follow this. Should any conflicts or issues be detected, the operator is alerted and control can be taken of the vessel remotely, if required, or the mission plan can be updated. The Sea-Kit has been designed and coded to allow for manned, autonomous or unmanned operations: we’ve designed a bespoke remote control that allows the vessel to be controlled directly from land or another vessel. K-Mate also allows us to take control remotely, via maritime broadband radio [MBR] or satellite link, so there is complete coverage for unmanned operations.”
Following her launch, USV Maxlimer spent much of October undertaking trials in Horten, Norway. These demos included launch and recovery of a Kongsberg-branded HUGIN AUV: “We had a lot of fingers crossed during this event,” Bielecki recalls – an unsurprising reaction, given that AUV’s value of US$4.5 million – “but it went perfectly.”
Compliance with COLREGS remains a challenge, he says, particularly given the absence of content related to unmanned vessels within those regulations. “The COLREGS’ definition of maintaining a lookout at all times could be problematic,” Bielecki says. USV Maxilimer has been fitted with a suite of CCTV cameras to address this point, though the more cameras used equates to more bandwidth guzzled.
Next year looks to be equally busy for the Sea-Kit team. Having assessed the concept’s suitability as an offshore AUV support and survey ship, the company wants to test the Sea-Kit class as a possible monitoring vessel, for use by law enforcement, port state control (PSC) authorities and/or coast guard agencies.
Ultimately, the Sea-Kit concept could one day be employed as a dedicated autonomous firefighting or first responder vessel. Equipped with fire monitors and pumps, the ship could be programmed to advance directly into burning port or coastal areas, or towards burning vessels, to tackle blazes head-on. Similarly, it could be sent into areas affected by chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attacks – areas typically considered ‘death traps’ – to extinguish chemical blazes and collect CBRN environmental samples without exposing human personnel to the risks of toxic smoke inhalation, serious physical burns and explosions.
Unmanned vessels could also save a lot of money, both in initial capex and subsequent opex. “We have estimates for various missions of total costs being potentially less than 25% of traditional costs, and potentially even less,” Bielecki reveals. “Sea-Kit allows for savings in: initial build cost; daily running costs, including fuel, insurance and maintenance; transit costs, through its ability to be transported, globally, by container; and in crew costs.”