Battling to Build the World's First Autonomous Vessel

June 23, 2018

By: Kevin Murphy, Sr. Director of Marketing – Pelican

Standing on the waterfront in Tampa recently I witnessed a Blackhawk helicopter attack a small cruise ship that had been commandeered by “bad guys”. Heavy machine gun fire erupted from the building above me and brass shells rained down after every burst. Thoughtfully, building security set out orange cones where the shells were falling.

I’m at SOFIC, the Special Operations Forces International tradeshow and this mock operation by US Navy Seals demonstrates the overwhelming tactics and firepower they can project anywhere in the world.

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As part of the marketing team at Pelican Products I’m here to spit-polish our tradeshow booth and greet military customers for the week. Many of the exhibitors are also Pelican customers, using our cases to transport military equipment. That’s how I learned about Minion, an autonomous boat being developed in Daytona Beach. The rumor is this boat keeps its brains in a Pelican 1605 case - this I have to see.

A few phone calls, a rental car and 180 miles later I’m pulling into Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. This university was founded in 1925 to train pilots for the emerging air-mail industry, and today Embry-Riddle offers majors as diverse as Space Physics and Autonomous Systems Engineering. It is the latter program that begot Minion.

While autonomous cars get all the headlines it turns out there is a serious movement to build the world’s first self-piloting ships, and Minion is proving it. Funded in part by the Office of Naval Research and the AUVSI Foundation, Minion was built by the Robotics Association at Embry-Riddle who used it to compete in the 2014 and 2016 Maritime RobotX Challenge in Singapore and Hawaii, respectively.

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Minion is a 16 foot catamaran bristling with electronics and Pelican cases. The goal is to assign the boat a mission and set it loose. Regardless of the wind, currents, wave height, etc. Minion must stay on course, navigate shorelines and obstacles at sea and communicate its progress back to the team’s base station. Compared to keeping a car in a lane on a fixed road, autonomous vessels at sea have a lot more to deal with.

Turns out putting computers and electronics on a small vessel in the water is really sketchy. Which is where Pelican comes in… according to Faculty Advisor Eric Coyle, building a reliable waterproof box is a lot of work, so our line of cases provide a great off-the-shelf solution. Plus they have an automatic purge valve that balances the air pressure inside and outside the case. So the team just bolts a case like a Pelican Protector 1170 to the Minion frame (using epoxy or gasket material to seal the fasteners) and voila, you have a watertight connection box ready for electronics. And when mounted vertically the door opens down providing a full view of the equipment inside, and the lid makes a handy tray to hold tools and parts.

Ok if you’re still reading then your inner geek is going to like this: everyone knows computers get hot, so how do you cool off 3 CPUs built into a Pelican Air 1605 case? For Team Minion the solution is an external radiator, with fans and a pump to circulate cool water through the case. And they built a docking system so the brains in the Pelican 1615 Air case can be unplugged and moved to a workbench! Snap in a couple quick-release pins and boom you’re back in business.

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Now all this is very cool, but I had to ask what’s it for? Turns out there are a bunch of good reasons:

  • A swarm of small vessels could perform ocean search and rescue with 100% precision- no gaps and no overlaps.
  • Permanently station solar-powered rescue craft on high-traffic migration routes.
  • Guide large vessels through shallow/narrow controlled waterways.
  • Provide persistent reconnaissance to secure harbors and naval facilities.
  • Recharge submersible drones through autonomous docking.
  • Offshore resupply operations.

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I’m impressed. Just witnessing the relentless ingenuity of the Embry-Riddle team is inspiring, and it’s good to know that Pelican cases are useful tools in moving technology forward.