Driverless boats could become a reality after Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (SLEP), a partnership of universities, businesses and public sector organisations in the Solent area of the UK’s south coast invested £1.5 million in designing and delivering a dedicated autonomous systems testing service.
Defense technology provider BAE Systems has been awarded a grant of £457,000 by SLEP as part of the overall investment.
BAE Systems will work with autonomous vehicle specialist ASV Global; unmanned flight research company Blue Bear Systems Research; navigation and communication systems integration provider Marine Electronic Systems; software company SeeByte; and the University of Southampton to provide the service’s infrastructure, with other organizations set to join later this year.
The new service is scheduled to be ready for use later in 2017, and customers should be able to conduct trials and test systems such as unmanned boats, air vehicles and autonomous sensors.
The trials will be based around Portsmouth, Southampton and the South East of Isle of Wight. It will use a maritime communications network and a mobile command and control centre, featuring the same technology that BAE Systems provides to UK Royal Navy platforms.
A vital technology
BAE Systems’ combat systems head of technology Frank Cotton said that autonomous and unmanned systems are thought of as vital technology for the future, but said there was a great deal of work that needed to be done to unlock its true potential, and understand how they can be integrated into wider systems.
“A wide range of organisations from the defence and commercial sectors, along with academia, have ambitions for this technology and this unique service will allow them to find valuable ways to use it whilst furthering its development,” he said.
The testing service will go live later this year in a “controlled, but realistic” maritime environment.
While the underlying technology for autonomous systems may be the same in these trials, it will require an attention-to-detail and technical expertise to build specific use cases; a driverless boat will have very different requirements to an unmanned aircraft, for example.
This is not the first time BAE Systems has worked on autonomous vehicle research. Back in 2016, the company and test service partners worked together on autonomous maritime capabilities in the Royal Navy’s ‘Unmanned Warrior’ exercise – a large scale demonstration of maritime robotic systems.
In October last year, MIT, AMS Institute, Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University, joined forces on the development of a fleet of autonomous boats – named “Roboats” – that will operate in Amsterdam’s canal system.