‘Mission-agnostic USV’
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‘Mission-agnostic USV’

Oceanus12 provides full over-the-horizon autonomy

Before long, it will be possible to send an uncrewed surface vessel (USV) to sea to carry out offshore and deep-sea surveying and monitoring over distances of more than 2,000 nautical miles. It will even keep working when satellite communication is down. Oceanus12 is the name registered by Zero USV for its class of 12m-aluminium vessels.

Oceanus12 will form a new class of high-endurance charter USVs. This is a first in marine autonomy: a fully autonomous – not remotely controlled – turnkey package complete with all the requisite marine sensor technology and AI for design and build, right through to operation and support. Oceanus12 was conceived by Zero USV (UK), formed by the same companies that helped build the Mayflower (the USV that navigated autonomously across the Atlantic Ocean in 2022). Zero USV’s managing director, Matthew Ratsey: “We are on track to have the first two vessels on the water by autumn 2024 and available for immediate charter following the successful conclusion of trials.”

Ratsey, a naval architect, is intrinsically involved in the design, specification and build of the Oceanus12 series. The principles he set out to meet are to offer a charter solution as a versatile platform, with a very wide range of potential applications from surveys and monitoring of critical assets to safety. “Effectively, a mission-agnostic vessel.”

The markets that will benefit from Oceanus12 are vast, and include geophysical surveying and mapping, offshore oil & gas exploration, renewables exploration and maintenance, border control, fisheries science and defence. Zero USV has reached exclusive supply arrangements with Hexagon, who is providing an LD900 GNSS receiver and a survey-grade inertial measurement unit (IMU), and with RAD Propulsion, who is supplying its state-of-the-art RAD 40 electric propulsion systems, including RAD batteries.

Zero USV managing director Matthew Ratsey: “A sophisticated sensor suite aids situational awareness and obstacle detection and avoidance with an accuracy of below 1mm and is able to pick up objects as small as lobster pot markers.”

Challenges

The barriers to successful operation of over-the-horizon USVs for offshore hydrographic and geophysical survey are rapidly being overcome. Practical concerns are being mitigated, regulatory codes of practice are being developed, and forward-thinking manufacturers such as Zero USV are coming up with technical solutions to historical hurdles. The company tackled several challenges, including cross-border regulations, but the biggest challenge was to provide full autonomy.

Matthew Ratsey explains: “Much of what already exists on the market is only operated by remote control, so we have supplied a vessel that will continue to be operational, avoiding all shipping, and without any outages should there be an issue with satellite communications. Due to significant advancements in GPU technology over the past few years, the AI software that controls Oceanus12 can be deployed ‘on the edge’, which means on the AI GPUs mounted on the boat. These are relatively small machines, the size of an A5 box – not a server rack installation. By doing this, we will build enough intelligence into Oceanus12 to carry on without having to rely on an ‘always on’ satellite communication. I cannot go into specifics here – our competitors read Hydro International too – but the electric hybrid power train that we have developed with our various partners solves the issues around reliability and power optimization.”

The AI software is named GuardianAI and was also developed by Zero USV. Using AI significantly reduces human error and risk, in what can often be challenging and dangerous environments. “While the idea isn’t to replace people fully, the feeding of data back to a manned station, with autonomy guided by world class marine radar sensor technology, increases productivity and efficiency, at the same time offering payload flexibility in harsh or hard to reach environments,” outlines the managing director. He needs no external data to train GuardianAI. “We are ingesting data the entire time, and whether it is object data from the computer vision system or data from the radar and/or AIS, all of it can be used to train the AI datasets and curate these for improvements in the field.”

Simon Baldwin, Ultrabeam Hydrographic’s project manager, is responsible for testing the Oceanus12 on decarbonizing offshore operations, cost savings and staff experiences.

Trial

Assembled in May 2024, the first vessels are ready for testing and commissioning of the mechanical and electrical systems, followed by the software. Zero USV is partnering in the trial phase with Ultrabeam Hydrographic (UK), which also develops USVs.

Simon Baldwin, project manager at Ultrabeam, is keen to be the first to check Oceanus12 out: “We have worked successfully with the founders of Zero USV on several military R&D projects to create autonomous amphibious vehicles. It is a natural step to continue to collaborate on the real-world survey use of their autonomous surface vessel. We carry out a wide range of hydrographic and geophysical projects for customers in the fields of offshore energy production, subsea cables and national infrastructure. Over the past decade, there has been a significant market-driven focus on decarbonizing offshore operations, making them more cost effective and removing personnel from harsh offshore environments wherever possible. Advances in artificial intelligence and satellite communications now make this possible. Unmanned vehicle operations are a fundamental part of our business, and we are keen to test true, over-the-horizon offerings that can offer our customers genuine benefits.”

Baldwin, educated as a geophysicist, is in his element when exploring innovative methods to acquire high-resolution data. He lists his aims for the trial: “How much does this autonomous surface vehicle, performing the role of a survey platform for offshore hydrographic and geophysical surveys, reduce net carbon emissions compared to a traditional manned vessel? How significant are the cost savings compared to a traditional survey vessel capable of accommodating, feeding and supporting a full complement of survey staff? What are the experiences of people who may now be able to conduct surveys completely isolated from the survey vehicle, from the comfort of their desks? That’s what I want to establish.”

The Oceanus12 is built from recyclable aluminium. (Image courtesy: Zero USV)

Safety

Over-the-horizon applications with unmanned autonomous cars, drones or vessels risk collateral damage; a risk that in theory also exists for Oceanus12. “In theory, yes. But in practice, highly unlikely,” says Matthew Ratsey. “The main reason that this technology is so transferable and useful in the marine environment is that the speeds at which events occur are far slower and generally less catastrophic than on land or in the air. For example, we may pick up a target 15 miles away from us while travelling at ten knots, which means that our intercept is several hours ahead – not seconds or minutes. The ocean is a big place and is relatively uncluttered. The challenge is in harbour or in port, but that can be dealt with by providing local support vessels to escort as necessary. In addition, we are assisted by a sophisticated sensor suite, including a Navtech high-definition radar operating in the W-band, which significantly aids situational awareness and obstacle detection and avoidance with an incredible accuracy of below 1mm, and which is able to pick up objects as small as lobster pot markers.”

On the market

The first Oceanus12 USVs are being constructed in the UK. They are built from aluminium, which is fully recyclable. “We are not producing more plastic boats for landfill,” smiles Ratsey. At just under 12 metres, the Oceanus12 class will fit neatly into a 40ft container, allowing it to be quickly and easily transported anywhere in the world at very short notice. Also, being constructed from a kit of laser-cut aluminium parts and components, Zero USV can build anywhere in the world if customers require it to be built in their own country.

The business model chosen by Zero USV is for USVs only to be available for charter. Why not for sale? Matthew Ratsey is confident that they have made the right choice, based on feedback from the market: “The reality is that there are very few companies with the necessary skills and experience to bring together the design and build of a USV with the levels of engineering, technology and regulatory compliance required. Plus, there are the financial commitment and significant lead times involved in pulling a project like this off. Our business model to charter makes the costs a simple line item on a project costing sheet. It gives our customers the advantage that they do not have to make any capital outlay or significant investment. The vessels can be leased for any period on a sliding scale from one day to three years or more. When you consider that there is no crew to be paid and that no provisions or stores are required, we will be offering the various industries exceptional value for money. In fact, I think the problem we will face is keeping up the build schedule to match demand from customers wanting to charter.”

Oceanus12, a new class of high-endurance, fully autonomous USVs. (Image courtesy: Zero USV)
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