Unmanned Boats or Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs) can operate in all marine environments from small inland lakes to miles offshore. When embarking on any kind of remote or autonomous operation it is vital to understand the mission at hand and pre-plan its execution. Our team have operated over 75 different ASVs to date in all kinds of weather conditions. Here are our top 5 things to remember at all times when planning an ASV operation at sea.
1. Use the right vehicle for the job
There are a huge variety of Unmanned Boats and Autonomous Surface Vehicles (USVs and ASVs) available in today’s market place. ASV Global’s fleet ranges from small 2m/6.5’ catamarans to 13m/42’ monohulls. When it comes to pairing a vehicle to an operation it’s important to remember that one size does not fit all. Smaller vehicles (<2.5m) are great for low endurance river surveys; medium vehicles (2.5m-5m) are best suited to coastal/inshore work; and the larger vehicles (>5m) are excellent for offshore operations. So, when choosing the right Unmanned Boats for the job, consider the following: seakeeping requirement, payload capacity, launch and recovery method and operation duration. Matching this requirements mix against the available vehicle specifications will determine the most appropriate vehicle for the job.
2. Engage with local/national maritime authorities
Although Unmanned Boats in general are being developed further and further, there is still little in the way of formal regulations and rules surrounding the operation of ASVs at sea. And despite the advanced technology and demand for these systems, scepticism of their use still exists. As operators it’s extremely important to act responsibly at all times and part of that involves engaging with the relevant local and/or national maritime authorities to inform them of any unmanned operations. Some waterways are extremely busy; take the Solent (off Portsmouth, UK) for example, home of the Royal Navy, a busy shipping and transportation channel, and a world-renowned area for sailing. Gaining permission of the people responsible for overseeing the area is massively important as it informs them of what’s happening and it builds trust as well as a case history.
3. Carry out a risk and safety assessment
For any operation, safety should be the number one priority. A comprehensive risk assessment should take place during the planning phase of any operation. A safety assessment document should be produced which will include a full run down of events (including the risk assessment) and act as a briefing document to anyone taking part in the operation. It’s always worth remembering that documentation is only worthwhile if people read it! Holding a verbal briefing session prior to the operation is a good opportunity to run through the safety assessment and trials plan in order to minimise any risks and ensure safe operations.
4. Decide on the method of control
The range at which the vehicle is operating will determine the method of control. Consider whether the vehicle will be controlled from a support vessel or from a control station onshore. For close by operations, Wi-Fi is a suitable communications link. For further operations, UHF radio may be more appropriate but remember the data feed will be low, fine for simple remote control. COFDM (IP) radio allows for a larger data feed which may be more suitable if the vehicle is under semi-autonomous/autonomous control with camera feedback. But for those out of sight, over the horizon communications, satellite works best.
5. Consider the ‘what if’s’
Despite everyone’s best intentions sometimes operations don’t go to plan because of reasons outside of our control. What if we lose communication with the vehicle? Always have a loss of comms plan, not only between the team but on the vehicle too. All ASV vehicles have several methods of stopping. The ASView Control System has several emergency stop features and the vehicles themselves typically have a kill cord that can be pulled manually if necessary. What if the weather gets too bad? Know the limits of the vehicle and have a plan for recovery. The more you consider these factors at the front end, the quicker you’ll be able to react if something were to go off plan.
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