Reliance on USVs is set to continue, particularly in the North American marine and offshore segments, where iXblue is making inroads with its DriX drone (pictured).
“Overall, the USV market is really picking up,” Guillaume Eudeline, head of global business development for ships and drones at high-tech company and USV developer iXblue, tells Ship & Boat International. “It is now being assessed as a viable solution, not a naval architect’s fantasy anymore, and it brings a level of profit and efficiency unheard of with traditional assets.”
The need to contain the spread of COVID-19 is now spurring this demand. “We’ve been approached by a customer interested in an autonomous solution to lower the amount of survey crew members, to cope with potential future pandemics,” Eudeline continues. While individual enquiries of this type may not reflect ‘across the board’ demand at this point, “they do emphasise a general trend that points toward crew reductions for reasons ranging from economics to health and safety, and, to a lesser extent, the lack of commonalities between younger generations’ expectations and the reality of life at sea”, he says. “This is all very favourable for autonomous solution development.”
iXblue has now teamed up with Connecticut, US-based ThayerMahan Inc, a developer of autonomous maritime security solutions, to provide unmanned maritime and survey services primarily within the North American market, but also globally – and iXblue’s DriX-branded USV will serve as the backbone of this venture.
The DriX is a monohull unit, featuring a Kevlar-reinforced composite hull and glass-fibre superstructure. It measures 7.71m x 0.82m, draws 2m and displaces 1.4tonnes. Capable of remote-controlled, semi-autonomous and fully autonomous operations, the vehicle deploys a 37.5hp (28kW) diesel engine fed by a 250litre-capacity fuel tank, plus a single fixed-pitch propeller. At its top speed of 14knots, the DriX can maintain continuous operations for 24 hours, while a speed of 4knots would be required to complete a 10-day mission. The USV’s hydrodynamic shape allows it to operate in conditions up to sea state 5.
Various sensors can be fitted within the USV’s submerged gondola, which descends to 2m below the surface and has been developed to offer a reduced-noise, bubble-free environment. The gondola can be customised in terms of size and shape, and is swappable, Eudeline adds. Common sensor options for the gondola include multibeam echosounders (MBES), ultra-short baseline (USBL) systems and sub bottom profiler (SPB) sensors. The DriX can also carry cameras, optical sensors and LIDAR.
The USV is typically deployed from the DriX Deployment System (DDS), a 3.1tonne launch-and-recovery unit. The DDS effectively acts as a “floating cradle” that can be attached to the support vessel and deployed from a davit, a crane or an A-frame, iXblue explains.
The company adds: “During the mission, the pilot remains on standby. He receives any potential alarm originating from the DriX and can override the system by taking over manual control through a remote. Fitted with an iXblue autopilot and a collision avoidance system, it can operate on wind farms or within rigs’ 500yards [457m] exclusion zones.”