No Crew, No Problem: All-in-one System Steers the Way Across Seas Safely and Intelligently

Andrew Yue Kwok Wai

Vice-President, Unmanned Maritime Systems, Electronics, ST Engineering

Imagine. While patrolling the coasts of Singapore, the perception system on a police coast guard vessel detects a suspicious vessel heading towards the shore.

From afar, the vessel monitors the nefarious activities through a live video capture while tracking their coordinates, feeding headquarters with valuable intelligence. The authorities are immediately deployed to intercept this group of illegal immigrants –safeguarding Singapore’s homeland security.

This is not a fiction or a scene from a movie. Contributing to this operation’s success is the unmanned coast guard vessel.

Fully autonomous with no crew on board, the vessel makes the patrolling job safer by eliminating any exposure to danger should a situation escalate while maximising the endurance of a vessel’s operations at sea that is not limited by human’s fatigue.

Besides detecting intruders, these unmanned vessels can also be used to detect and deter piracy, ensuring safe conditions for trade and commerce, especially crucial for port cities.

The benefits of such autonomous solutions are not limited to the defence and security industry. Maritime scanning for tuna using driverless vessels equipped with 3D sonar sensors are in the works.

As we embark on Industry 4.0, automation is a game-changer in driving efficiency. Maritime operations that harness the power of autonomous technology can deliver greater benefits and opportunities for both military and commercial users.

We have developed the Autonomast – an all-in-one modular system that can be installed on any vessel to transform it into an unmanned surface vessel (USV) for both dangerous missions and everyday tasks.

A one-stop automation kit

The Autonomast features Swiss Army knife-like qualities – compact and versatile.

For navigation purposes, the fused radar and panoramic vision gives the boat an all-round situational awareness, to provide a near-zero miss obstacle detection and tracking capability for the USV. These are complemented by pan-tilt-zoom optics – where users can control the lens remotely – and a powerful searchlight for enhanced object recognition capabilities.

Connecting the ship-to-shore, mesh Wi-Fi, LTE and satellite communications network datalinks are aggregated to provide high level of connectivity, to allow positive control authority over the vessel at all times.

However, challenges faced by USVs, such as collision avoidance, cyber security and seakeeping qualities, remain. To test the Autonomast’s navigation and security capabilities, it has been tested in the perfect testbed – Singapore – the world’s second busiest transhipment hub which sees a vessel arriving or leaving every two to three minutes.

The Autonomast, which occupies no more than one seat space, is designed to be able to fit into ISO containers to facilitate shipment processes.

It is currently available in three models, each tailored to different types of vessels ranging from 7 to 20 metres in length. Other versions that cater for larger vessels are in the works.

Spearheading smart and safe navigation

A key feature of the Autonomast is its automatic guidance capability that enables smart navigation.

With full-resolution images of coastline and shallow water contours, geo-fences and no-go zones, the controller can chart a safe course ahead of time by setting multiple waypoints, allowing the operator to focus on mission-related objectives and leave the mundane task of A-to-B transit to be done autonomously.

The control station at shore is designed for optimal remote situation awareness and intervention, where the operator has a 360-degree view of the USV’s surroundings as captured by camera optics, and augmented reality overlays as decision support.

Bolstering the USV’s safety is the Autonomast’s obstacle detection capabilities. Through metadata augmentation, a video output will capture nearby obstacles and ships by highlighting them in coloured boxes, to serve as a call-out to the operator, while simultaneously being processed by the obstacle avoidance software. Depending on application, the perception suite can detect obstacles as small as barrels and sailing yachts that may be missed by standard navigation radars.

This would be useful for firefighting teams that have to avoid debris from larger ships or oil rigs, for example.

In rough weather, the Autonomast’s algorithm steadies the ship through optimised route planning, to minimise rocking caused by waves and wind.

An alternative means of controls can be done through a handheld tablet, which gives the operator full control of the vessel in situations like close quarter manoeuvring.

End-to-end cyber security solutions

With telecommunication features comes the need for proactive and secure cyber security solutions.

On board the USV, hardened operating systems and interfaces minimise the attack surface – different points where unauthorised users can access data – to guard against malicious infiltration. Cyber security applications are also installed to detect any anomaly in the USV’s subsystems.

At the shore control centre, we protect our systems with BIOS-based malware resistance and anomaly detection. Communication gateways between the USV and the control centre are also safeguarded through a secure data link with a content checker. As sensitive data may be transmitted in security operations, this prevents external parties from hijacking any information.

These characteristics enable the Autonomast to be integrated with various maritime operations, offering competitive advantage by taking man out of harm’s way, improving efficiency while maintaining a high level of security.

Built for vessels of all purposes – defence and maritime security, oil and gas, fishery or firefighting – the Autonomast paves the way for smarter and safer autonomous navigation.

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