Still-developing technology and markets for autonomous vessels could take the infant sector in unexpected directions, two leading-edge providers said Wednesday at the International WorkBoat Show in New Orleans.

Thinking about mating solar energy panels and electric drives to autonomous patrol boats raises the prospect of picket vessels with ultra-long endurance, said Chris Allard, CEO of Metal Shark, which this year unveiled its first Defender-class patrol vessel equipped with ASV Global technology.

“If you take away the two to four gallons per hour for stationkeeping, we’ve done scenarios where it’s startlingly close to infinite,” said Allard.

Autonomous functions will complement navigation bridge crews, effectively extending eyes and ears with their sensors, said Michael Johnson, founder and CEO of Sea Machines with offices in Boston and Hamburg.

Sea Machines is now working with Maersk on trialing autonomous technology in that role on a crewed containership in the Baltic. Johnson and Allard say the technology can apply as a smart autopilot, alerting human operators to changing vessel conditions and external factors.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.