Autonomous vessel enters next stage of development

Two years ago, Morgan City, La.-based Swiftships built a 35’×8′ aluminum special operations craft (SOC) prototype that can be operated by remote control. The remote controlled version of the yard’s Anaconda (AN-2) is the first step in developing an autonomous watercraft.

Designed by the shipyard in partnership with the University of Louisiana Lafayette (ULL), the AN-2 is designed to support the efforts of military operations on inland waters by providing power, speed, greater mobility and ease of deployment. The new technology coupled with Swiftships’ prototype will permit brownwater military missions to be implemented effectively without any human crew being put in danger, according to Swiftships officials. The new boat can be sent around a curve in a river, for example, where enemies could be waiting.

“We have control over the vessel through an iPad,” Joshua Vaughan, an assistant professor at ULL, said during a demonstration exercise at Swiftships in February 2014. “It’s an all-in-one autonomous vessel run by remote control. Using GPS coordinates, it’s able to avoid obstacles.”

Vaughan is leading a team to develop the autonomous system. The technology the team is developing would use lasers, cameras, ultrasound and other sensors that gauge currents and waves to detect obstacles in the water such as logs or oncoming boats. The information would flow to a computer system that reacts quickly, steering and accelerating the boat like an experienced human pilot.

Swiftships is now partnering with ICS Nett Inc. (ICS), a Virginia-based technology solutions company, to continue research and development efforts on the Anaconda, a Special Operation Craft Riverine (SOCR). Together, ICS and Swiftships will transform the Anaconda into a completely autonomous watercraft equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities that is faster and has more complex maneuverability than its predecessor.

Phase One of the Anaconda began with a partnership between Swiftships and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2014, when they created the Anaconda as a remotely piloted vessel. Later, a trajectory-tracking controller was added for use in obstacle free environments. Phase One completed in 2015, and ICS is adopting Phase Two to create the Anaconda 2.0 as an ongoing project.

In order for the Anaconda 2.0 to become an autonomous, AI watercraft, ICS will provide technological solutions and services. First, ICS will upgrade the current remote control capabilities with BVR satellite based control for longer, wireless range. Next, the original code, control mechanisms, and sensor interface will be updated and validated. The current Anaconda model lacks closed loop data from the boat that is needed to adjust control actions. To combat this, additional sensor interface will be equipped to transmit relevant boat data back to the operator console as necessary. Once the sensory interface is in place, ICS will augment the AI with procedures that will allow it to follow terrain and way point markers, be capable of collision avoidance without direct input, and to perform tactical maneuvers and loiter in area for long periods of time, all without human intervention.

To test the success of the upgrade, ICS will design a test bench system capable of reproducing the field conditions in a simulated environment.

“We are prepared to run as many field tests and calibrations as are necessary to see this project to completion,” Shehraze Shah, Swiftships CEO said. “With a focus on Artificial Intelligence, this project is a significant milestone for Swiftships, ICS, and the shipbuilding industry.”

About the author

Ken Hocke

Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.

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