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Are USVs at risk of becoming an antiquated emerging technology?

Driven by the need for cleaner, more sustainable solutions, maritime technology is finally embracing a shift away from traditional diesel-powered manned vessels to uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs), promising to deliver more sustainable, safer, and cost-effective operations.

While USVs have long been considered an emerging technology, because of their game-changing capabilities, is the industry really taking advantage of all that USVs have to offer? Why for example are USVs still being strategised, designed, and built as traditional manned vessel hull forms? And how does a user assess which USV is best suited to their operational requirements, independently of its application?

The way USV manufacturers market USVs is in terms of operational functionality

Think of it as a kind of “Top Trumps”. The most common capability requirements include the maximum speed of the vessel, endurance, range, payload capacity in terms of weight, maximum operational sea state, and communication capabilities. In general terms - the way we assess USVs is remarkably similar to traditional manned vessels.

Where’s the disruption in thinking and acting like a centuries-old industry?

The essence of a USV is that it is first and foremost a robot, and then a boat. While full autonomy of decision-making is still some way off and the vessels rely on a remote operator, these uncrewed vessels need to overcome two immense challenges. First, they need to operate in the harshest environments in the world, the ocean, and second, they need fail-safe redundancy programs to ensure the safety of not only the vessel but also other ships and marine life. There is no room for mistakes as a mistake could mean losing the vessel.

For this reason, when we were launching ACUA Ocean we knew that for USVs to become a truly disruptive technology we had to rethink the entire business model of the shipbuilding industry.

Users need a way to assess the suitability of a given USV, independently of its application. We need to rethink how we design and manufacture vessels. And perhaps most importantly of all, we need to reconnect with the environment and radically address the impact of the maritime sector on our planet. Rather than judging the suitability of a USV or any vessel for that matter, based upon metrics of performance, we need to reframe disruption and innovation to measure the value of these four key factors:

1. Scalability, modularity, and circular economy

We wanted the ability to efficiently standardize and scale a platform that can be easily reproduced, integrated, used, and recycled in different vessels, independently of what is the application of the vessel. This allows ACUA Ocean to reduce the manufacturing cost and time, waste, and CO2 footprint, and increase the confidence in the developed platform. To obtain this metric of performance, we compare what is the impact on the operational cost and the CO2 footprint through-life of a custom-made (traditional vessel) solution compared to a custom integrated solution.

2. Smart

Ability to integrate the USV into an IoT network that allows the operator detailed and specific monitoring and control of all the onboard systems, allowing us to use algorithms to track the evolution of the ship systems to predict potential failures and allow a proactive maintenance strategy. This reduces the uncertainty the user has of the vessel; as uncertainty decreases, so the user becomes more confident in the utilization of USVs.

3. Resilience and redundancy

Accidents and failures always happen, this metric measures the protection against failure of the different systems and the USV as a system of systems (resilience). It proactively manages and reduces risk through controlled redundancy levels to tackle potential failures or accidents to achieve a purpose. In USVs, defining redundancy levels can be tricky -or example, USV manufacturers make special efforts to have two separated power systems, however, if all the communication systems go through the same router, in the event of losing that router, the user will lose the control of the vessel, meaning that router is a single point of failure and therefore cancelling the redundancy levels of the USV.

4. Reliability is the key differentiator

This metric measures two parameters; first, the meantime to failure (MTTF) of the robot’s (USV) software and hardware, and the capability of the robot to self-diagnose a failure or the likelihood of failure. In the past, system integration problems were identified and solved by the crew who were actively monitoring the various systems onboard. However, these types of failures could result in fatal consequences in USVs. A robot with a system that can self-diagnose and intervene before an impending failure is the one metric that will differentiate traditional shipbuilders from USV manufacturers.

Looking into the future

By embracing new measurements of success, we will drive a triple-bottom-line; delivering for people, the planet, and profit. Soft operational metrics of capability will of course be necessary, but the way we measure impact needs to be based upon our ambition to drive value through the entire maritime economy.

Yes, a vessel needs to have the capability and functionality to do the job - that’s easy, there are thousands of boats around that can do that. How many users are willing to develop a vessel procurement strategy that puts disruption at its core?

Now the question is on you, do you know what you are looking for when you want to purchase a USV? Do you know if your USV is actually a remotely operated robot or just a traditional vessel with some cool automated systems?


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