First Harvest Selects Sea Machines to Launch Autonomous Hybrid Cargo Vessel 

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By AI Trends Staff 

First Harvest Navigation, a marine transportation company that connects family farms to urban and suburban neighborhoods, has selected technology from Sea Machines of Boston to launch a hybrid cargo vessel, believed to be the first in the US.  

The Sea Machines autonomous command and remote helm control system, called the SM300, will be installed on the Captain Ben Moore, which delivers food and other cargo between Norwalk, Conn. and Huntington, NY. By truck, the trip to deliver this food to the Harbor Harvest food market takes nine hours. The Captain Ben Moore can complete the terminal-to-terminal voyage across Long Island Sound in 35 to 45 minutes, reducing highway congestion.  

“Part of our transportation goals are to develop autonomous, hybrid catamarans to move farm products across Long Island Sound. The Sea Machines SM300 autonomous navigation system will help us achieve many of our goals because it enables shipping movements to be completed very reliably and efficiently in a seamless and sustainable delivery system,” stated Bob Kunkel, president, First Harvest Navigation, in a press release from Sea Machines. “Shifting cargo from streets and highways also alleviates the growing congestion, lower emissions, and reestablishes our waterways as a viable and cost-efficient alternative to land-based transport.”  

Michael Johnson, founder and CEO of Sea Machines, stated, “Sea Machines and First Harvest Navigation are aligned in our commitments to innovation to bolster the U.S. marine highway system and in our support of family farms. It often takes determined entrepreneurial leaders like First Harvest Navigation to move an industry into new waters.” 

The hybrid vessel can carry approximately 28 pallets, 10 of which are positioned in a fully refrigerated and protected walk-in space. The remaining cargo spaces are open and covered according to customer requirements. It is powered by a pair of Cummins QSB 6.7 diesels, generating 104 kW each at 2,400 kW, and lithium batteries connected to a pair of BAE Systems HybriDrive electric motors.  

First Harvest Navigation and Harbor Harvest are providing new regional transportation, warehousing and retail marketing for family farms, local business and artisan products within New York and New England areas.   

Sea Machines SM300 Currently at Level 3-4 Autonomy 

In a webcast on the announcement, the current autonomy level of the Sea Machines SM300 is between a level three and four on a six-point scale, with six being unsupervised operation, said Phil Bourque, director of business development for Sea Machines.  

Phil Bourque, Director of Business Development, Sea Machines

“Actions are performed with human intervention. It is a human in the loop system. It’s a lot of work to get this to the later stages,” he said, adding, “Sea Machines is essentially a software company. We have developed hardware to get that software into the marine environment on boats.” 

The SM300, a 20inx20inx8in box, gets installed on the boat and is integrated with the steering, communication, compass, radar, camera and propulsion systems. For the project with First Harvest, the goal is to complement the crew. “We are not taking people off the boat. We are adding a layer of technology that enhances the overall ability to conduct the operation safely,” Bourque said. 

Sea Machines was founded in Texas, then moved to Boston “largely because of the great autonomy talent pool in Boston,” Bourque said. The company has a test fleet in Boston Harbor that operates “every day, rain, shine or snow,” he said.  

Micah Tucker, technician, working with First Harvest Navigation

The Captain Ben Moore is a hybrid electric vessel with lithium-ion batteries that operates on many of the same protocols Sea Machines is using, said Micah Tucker, technician working with First Harvest. The diesel generators on board are used as “range extenders,” to recharge the batteries as needed. “We have lots of commercial traffic in the sound at all times, so the SM300 will be an alternative second or third system for controlling the vessels. It allows us to operate from our command stations and also semi-autonomously from the boat itself.” 

Kunkel said the term “autonomy” took a “wrong turn” when first applied to the marine industry, “because people talked about removing the crew. We are looking at enhancing the crew’s capability.” He noted the original mission was to reduce truck traffic.  

The crew is now getting operating experience, loading and discharging cargo at the two terminals. They hope to gain experience with the collision avoidance systems when traffic picks up in late spring and early summer. Sea Machines is currently testing the capability. First Navigation is working with the Coast Guard to develop needed regulations, none of which exist at present. Most of First Navigation’s crew are former military or shipyard workers, Kunkel noted.   

Asked if the SM300 is capable of controlling multiple boats in a swarm, Bourque said the capability is in the software development plan.  

Sea Machines Testing Higher Autonomy System on Ship in Denmark 

Asked after the session what needs to happen for the SM300 to get from a level 3 and 4 autonomy, to levels 5 and 6, Bourque replied in an email: “It is essential we develop operator equivalency of ML/AI systems and the data collected and processed, before we get to level 5/6.”  

“As a first step, Sea Machines built the SM400 AI-powered perception and situational awareness system, which is currently in development and being trialed aboard an A.P. Moller-Maersk’s vessel, VISTULA MAERSK, an ice-class container ship in Denmark.  

The project has been significant not only to Sea Machines and Maersk, but also to the larger maritime industry as the installation marked the first time that computer vision, LiDAR and perception software have been utilized aboard a container vessel to augment and upgrade transit operations.” 

The system is expected to become commercially available to maritime operators and naval architecture and marine engineering firms next year. The system will fall into level 5, which is a “rarely supervised” operation mode called “full automation.” 

The system will provide mariners aboard with a full picture of the ship’s surrounding domain, traffic and obstacles, using data from conventional marine sensors (like radar and AIS) fused with new technologies, such as real-time image recognition for vessel detection and tracking and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR).  

The main advantages of advanced perception and situational awareness technologies is the reduced risk of uncontrolled incidents, accidents and delays that impact cargo schedules and reduce operators’ bottom lines,” Bourque said. “These incidents are traditionally caused by limitations in conventional shipboard instruments and the perception limitations of human operators.” 

Read the  press release from Sea Machines. 

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