JUST IN: U.S., Australian Vendors Join Forces in Marine Autonomy

By Sean Carberry

Sean Carberry photo

SYDNEY — Among the many boats darting around Sydney Harbour Nov. 9 was Sentinel Boats’ Sentinel 1100 kitted out with L3Harris’s autonomy technology under a new partnership agreement announced by the companies at the Indo Pacific 2023 International Maritime Exposition.

L3Harris spent about a week installing its autonomy hardware and software on the 11-meter boat, James Cowles, senior business development manager for L3Harris Autonomous Surface Vessels, said aboard a control boat in the harbor.

“So, we knew a bit about the boat before we came, but no one had seen it,” he said. “No plan how we were going to quite do the integration, but we knew enough to make it.”

They worked through the boat — a special forces-oriented model — to mount the cameras, satellite navigation and communications systems, and then install the control box — a 24-volt system in a padded box with some fans, he said.

The boat’s data network and the HamiltonJet propulsion system made it relatively easy to tie in and control the boat, he added.

After a driver manually piloted the boat out past the iconic harbor bridge — a harbormaster safety requirement — operators on the control boat took over and typed various commands into the remote computer system that directed the Sentinel to maneuver around the harbor and then enter follower mode and autonomously track along with the control boat.

That highlighted one of the limitations of autonomous surface vessels. Dense and unpredictable traffic in confined spaces like Darling Harbour can be too much for the technology to handle and for harbormasters to trust, Cowles noted.

Still, the demonstration was just a small sample of the autonomous capabilities that L3Harris has deployed on more than 100 boats globally that are performing military and civilian functions from surveillance to deploying ocean research technology, Cowles said.

The teaming agreement marks a logical expansion of the company’s autonomous business in Australia, he added.

“We're always on the lookout for fantastic partners that are based in the regions we want to operate,” Cowles said. “So, we do have operations in Australia, but none of them that can build vessels. … And what we see with Sentinel is that they're building these fantastic platforms out of this somewhat unique material.”

That material is high-density polyethylene, or HDPE. It’s a recyclable material that is more durable than fiberglass or metal, has better shock absorption properties and requires no maintenance, George McGuire, CEO of Sentinel Boats, said in an interview.

“We’ve had boats working seven days a week in the aquaculture industry, smashing into at-sea pens. They've been re-engined five times, and the hull is still fully operable — not the prettiest looking thing after 25 years of being smashed around,” he said.

“So, with L3Harris, it's really about we've got a platform we think has a long-endurance, high-reliability hull capability, so married with their autonomy” the boat can perform persistent ISR and other high-performance missions, he said.

While Sentinel Boats has had conversations with potential customers and other providers about installing autonomy systems on their hulls, the L3Harris demonstration was the first deployment of autonomy on a Sentinel.

“Their system is proven, our boats are proven and the interface was very simple,” he said.

L3Harris is “really concentrated on that autonomy space, we're a boat builder,” he continued. “And so, we will carry what the client wants to carry — if that's an autonomy package, if that's soldiers, if that's a [rigid inflatable boat] … for special forces’ insertional diving operations, that's [what] we design our boats to do, so there's a nice marriage between” the companies.

However, it’s an open marriage, he noted. Both companies are free to partner with other autonomy providers or boat builders based on customer interests.

“And part of our agreement is that we have times we’ll be prime and put their autonomy in; there's other times where the autonomy is the lead part, and we'll put our boat in,” he said. “That's … decided on an opportunity-by-opportunity basis.”


Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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