Drones, unmanned boats, and the future of watercraft

It’s ironic that the aviation industry, which has traditionally taken its cue from maritime tradition, is now paving the way into the future for waterborne unmanned transportation.

With the recent implementation of Rule 107 (training and licensing of commercial drone operators) and previous relaxations of regulations governing the size and operation of drones, the Federal Aviation Administration is marching steadily into the future. Drone weight limits are now up to 55 lbs., and there is widespread speculation that the last major barrier to effective and practical operation, the line-of-sight restriction, may soon be relaxed or eliminated.

As a prospective drone pilot – my commercial pilot’s license qualifies me under Rule 107 – I’m looking forward to an exciting new career. After a lifetime of risking life and limb flying passengers, freight, crop dusting chemicals and even dead bodies around – all the while fighting fog, thunderstorms and hostile terrain – I like the idea of relaxing in an air-conditioned “cockpit” in some office complex, a mini-fridge at my elbow, while piloting drones over distant mountains in the sure knowledge that at the end of my shift I’ll be going home.

Certainly, the difficulties facing the marine industry in adjusting to unmanned vehicles pale in comparison to those facing the aviation industry. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was tasked several years ago to develop a completely autonomous warship. The military christened that prototype autonomous vessel, the Sea Hunter, earlier this year. Even in the civilian sphere, technology has come a long way, and the melding of air, sea and land systems will soon bring us to the cusp of truly self-guided vessels.

Boats operate, essentially, in a two-dimensional universe, with only two-axis directional controls necessary. Except for inland waterways they generally operate free of overhead obstructions. The consequences of a power or control failure in a boat are much less than those in an aircraft. A boat with intrinsic floatation and stability can be brought to a safe stop even with total loss of power, whereas an aircraft aloft will be a constant danger to persons and things on the ground until it finally comes to rest.

The imminent introduction of “self-driving” cars is also pushing the limits of control and reliability. If this technology wins acceptance by regulatory agencies and insurance companies, then even the conservative marine industry will have to take notice. In terms of anti-collision technology, land technology is already leading the way. Cars are available on the mass market today with forward-looking proximity sensing and auto-stop capability, and cars usually travel much faster than watercraft. Although the weight penalty of an onboard operator of a watercraft is not as great, proportionally, as that for an aircraft pilot, there are other benefits to unmanned operation for any vehicle, including increased reliability and reduced human error.

Even now, the integration of autopilot, navigation, communication and ship-to-shore telemetry systems has already given the marine industry an inherent edge in unmanned guidance technology. A vessel with a sophisticated dynamic positioning system today has the raw capability for unmanned operation that may far exceed what’s currently available to air and land vehicles. However, the greatest impediments to full development of unmanned vessel guidance — acceptance and implementation — may prove more difficult to overcome.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.


  1. Avatar
    Chris W. Rickborn on

    Hello Capt. Hardberger,

    My name is Chris Rickborn. First of all, I agree that drone boats may be more feasible than drone airplanes for all of the reasons that you stated in your article. I am writing to you because of your interest in state of the art technology for these vessels, as I am. It is also with the hope that you may be able to help me with actually making these vessels state of the art all around, not just cosmetically, as the Sea Hunter appears to be. The Sea Hunter looks like an Hawaiian outrigger canoe, which is not going to be either safe or maneuverable in rough water.

    I am a boat designer and builder of 48 years, whose life’s passion has been making boats ride safely and comfortably through rough water. I invented a unique hull design which is patented, that should be on all boats. By the way, hull designs have remained static for the past fifty years, which is insane considering all of the other advances in boat technology and design. They say it can’t be done, but I have done it, and want to make it a reality.

    I am writing to you on the off chance that you may have some viable contacts that I could pursue, or ideas for whom to pursue to get the word out. I have a running prototype in the water in New Jersey. There is a great story behind this as well. I’m in Fort Lauderdale at: 954-451-7133, cwrickborn@gmail.com. There is a video on Utube, under Rickborn hull design. I look forward to hearing from you. Chris

  2. Avatar
    Michael Bedwell on

    Captain, sir. am trying to trace the Ph D thesis of a U.S. researcher who developed an autonomous sailboat for monitoring illegal sea-bed devices. about 2002. Open press . Grateful for any leads.

    Mike Bedwell (Royal Naval Reserve, retired)

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