Cargo boat getting autonomous system to transit Long Island Sound

The hybrid catamaran Captain Ben Moore.
The hybrid catamaran Captain Ben Moore.
The hybrid catamaran Captain Ben Moore is getting a remote-helm control system from Sea Machines Robotics.

A hybrid-powered catamaran that carries produce and occasionally passengers across Long Island Sound is being retrofitted to become the first autonomous-controlled cargo vessel in the United States.

First Harvest Navigation of Norwalk, Conn., has been using Captain Ben Moore to transport supplies between the company’s 4-year-old Harbor Harvest food market and a new store it opened on the waterfront in Huntington, N.Y. The 65-foot aluminum vessel was built by Derecktor Shipyards and delivered in 2019.

In November, the operator began installing a remote-helm control system from Boston-based Sea Machines Robotics that will allow the catamaran to be operated with no crew aboard. First Harvest plans to keep its captain and two deck hands in place, however. It sees the system as a way to back up the captain while he is steering and free him up to help with other tasks away from the wheelhouse, including preparing cargo to be unloaded.

The SM300 system, which includes obstruction-detection and collision-avoidance technology, allows remote-control operation from shore or another vessel via the internet. First Harvest President Bob Kunkel said that after installation is completed in consultation with the Coast Guard, which is expected in early 2021, testing on the Sound will begin. Sea Machines estimated the cost of an installed SM300 system at $100,000.

With growing interest in autonomous control systems, “everybody wants to talk about removing the crew,” Kunkel said. “We don’t think that’s where the value of the autonomy can come. We don’t have any intention at this time of removing crew. We think we can provide safer navigation. … The captain could come back and get the cargo ready for discharge rather than just being glued to the pilot seat as the boat is going back and forth. It would be a pilot program to see how we could operate the vessel more efficiently. It’s not going to be operated like a drone.”

Kunkel, a Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate who has worked as a merchant marine chief engineer, said he has had a lot of discussion with the Coast Guard about the system to ensure safety would not be sacrificed. He said it is akin to an enhanced autopilot system with more safeguards to prevent accidents.There’s still some fine-tuning necessary in the system’s detection and analysis of obstructions ahead of the vessel, Kunkel said. The system has the ability to notice that there is an obstruction ahead and warn the operator, but “it has to develop some more recognition. Right now just about everything is recognized as a boat,” he said. Kunkel is working with the manufacturer on adjustments to the system so it can better differentiate types of obstructions.

Kunkel said that during testing he would be operating the system via computer from shore, but “there will be somebody on the boat too to make sure that I don’t crash the boat into the damn dock.”

A documentary is being made about the project, Kunkel said.

Captain Ben Moore has been in operation for about a year. Kunkel said it is currently running from Norwalk to Huntington about twice a week since business has slowed due to COVID-19, curbing the demand from restaurants for fresh fish.

“We have some good contracts with a lot of food moving on the boat and we have a lot of passenger interest,” he said. “I think it will grow.”

Besides transporting food from Norwalk to the new Huntington store, the company moves produce from a farm in New Jersey and makes deliveries as far out on Long Island as Montauk. In the summer, the boat carried up to 50 passengers on day trips between Long Island and Connecticut. “That’s been pretty successful,” Kunkel said.

He said trucking the food products from Connecticut to Long Island would be more than an eight-hour round trip, while the catamaran reaches Huntington in about 40 minutes. “Shifting cargo from streets and highways also alleviates growing congestion, (reduces) emissions and re-establishes our waterways as a viable and cost-efficient alternative to land-based transport,” Kunkel said.

“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,” said Michael Johnson, founder and CEO of Sea Machines.

Amelia Smith, marketing communications consultant for the 5-year-old company, said Sea Machines systems have been installed aboard vessels ranging from a Maersk containership to patrol boats. She said it’s important for people to understand that “autonomous doesn’t equal unmanned. All of our SM300 autonomous command and control system customers use the autonomy features, which include autonomous transit, obstacle detection and collision avoidance, grid autonomy, collaborative autonomy and/or remote vessel command and control.”

Smith said autonomy systems “work 24/7 and never get tired or distracted. This ‘on-watch redundancy’ can help to prevent operational incidents and keep crews safer. The majority of our customers are using this system as a mariner’s aid, with crew on board. Unmanned operations are only being done in a very few special cases in very controlled domains.”    

Captain Ben Moore, the third in a series of 65-foot hybrids built by Derecktor in Mamaroneck, N.Y., is the first designed for carrying freight. 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. The vessel has a top speed of 15 knots and boasts 300 square feet of open cargo space, 100 square feet of covered space and 140 square feet of walk-in refrigerated space. The total capacity is 12,000 pounds of cargo or the equivalent of three to five full truckloads, according to Kunkel.

The earlier Derecktor catamarans are Spirit of the Sound, built for the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, and CUNY I, ordered by the City University of New York. Both are research vessels.

By Professional Mariner Staff