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Crew-free clean-up

Ship & Boat International: eNews September/October 2019



Oil spill response missions can prove complex affairs. From the start, there’s the need for intricate logistical coordination between response vessels (and often between vessels and aerial support units), plus pressure to contain the spill as quickly as possible. Naturally, the presence of liquid hydrocarbons in the sea can also pose a safety risk for clean-up crew. It’s exactly this type of ‘dirty, dull and dangerous’ task that robotics was always intended to address, so, unsurprisingly, some companies are currently considering whether remote-control and autonomous technologies could enable a safe and efficient means of oil spill clean-up. 


Recently, the industry got to see how these technologies perform when installed aboard an active oil skimmer. In late August, the Marine Spill Response Corp (MSRC), the US’ largest oil spill response organisation, conducted a demo in the Port of Portland, Maine, using an MRSC-owned, 9.5m x 2.95m workboat (pictured above) with a freeboard of 760mm, a displacement of nearly 3.4tonnes and the capacity to store up to 4,543litres of recovered oil. The vessel is powered by a pair of 67kW, 4-stroke engines for a speed of approximately 17knots, and carries a Marco filter belt skimmer to recover oil from the water surface.


This trial vessel was equipped with an intelligent system developed by Sea Machines Robotics of Boston, enabling both remote-control and autonomous operations. Warren Freda, business development manager for Sea Machines’ government division, tells Ship & Boat International: “Autonomous-command and remote-control technology isn’t a thing of the future – it’s here now, and already in use by marine operators. This demonstration is one way we are helping to show people the capabilities and value it brings to all types of marine operations.”


The boat was fitted with Sea Machines’ SM300 system, whose claimed capabilities include: remote control from an onshore location or a secondary vessel; obstacle detection and collision avoidance; wireless remote payload control (for example, enabling a shore-based operator to remotely deploy the vessel’s onboard boom and skimmer belt while it is at sea); and autonomous waypoint and grid line tracking. Essentially, Freda says, this technology enables “minimally manned and unmanned operations”, thus limiting human exposure to hazards such as toxic and carcinogenic fumes at the spill site. Unmanned operations could also permit operators to extend their daily working windows, enabling round-the-clock operations – for instance, should crew members only be available at particular times of the day, or experience fatigue and tiredness after long shifts. Regarding the SM300 installation process, Freda explains: “The Sea Machines SM300 or SM200 [an earlier model] can be added to workboats as a retrofit or part of newbuild specifications, typically requiring only 10 components to install. Most vessels can be outfitted with a Sea Machines system in less than a week."


The Portland exercises saw the vessel operated from an onshore station on a pier approximately 1km away. This station utilised an industrial laptop for route-planning and autonomous operations, and an industrial remote control for interactions such as towing the boom and controlling the skimmer belt. A similar set-up could be installed on a mothership. The SM300 can also be used to record and save data gathered during clean-up operations. “Lessons learned from these data are invaluable to future spill prevention and recoveries,” says Freda.