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Aussie SME completes sea trials of BlueBottle USV off NSW coast

Australian-based unmanned surface vessel (USV) developer Ocius has successfully completed all sea trial requirements for the company’s Defence Innovation Hub contract, three months ahead of schedule.

An important final test was demonstrating the company's 'visual acuity target recognition and collision avoidance' software. In these scenarios, Ocius put a BlueBottle (BB) on a collision course with the Ocius support boat, a difficult to see, low to the water, small, rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB):

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  • Using automatic visual recognition, the RHIB was identified as ‘not water/not sky’ and then positively identified as a ‘speedboat’;
  • The collision avoidance controller software then plotted a course around the RHIB; and
  • The BB proceeded around it and continued on its way.

This procedure happened autonomously, such that if the BB did not have communications at the time, it would avoid the collision and when communications came back it would send photos and GPS to the rest of the team and to the ‘human on the loop’.

Much of the endurance and intelligent networking trials over the last eight weeks have been done in Beaufort 1-4 conditions. However, recent weather events enabled sailing and rudder flipper testing to be conducted in a Beaufort 5-6 southerly winds and one-knot northerly currents for 24 hours.

Ocius was able to navigate freely in both ‘sail only’ mode, at one point going up to five knots boat speed, and in ‘rudder flipper only’ mode at up to two knots boat speed – both modes using zero propeller power.

Over the next month, Ocius will analyse the logs, write up reports and continue performance experiments on the company's unique patented ‘rudder flipper’.

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The BlueBottle USVs are autonomous data gathering and communications platforms being like 'satellites of the sea'. They offer multiple economic and operational advantages over conventional methods of ocean surveillance, such as:

  • Continuous coverage;
  • Wide coverage;
  • Greatly reduced capital costs;
  • Greatly reduced operational costs – no fuel, food or crew;
  • Elimination of errors due to human fatigue; and
  • No people or expensive assets in harm's way.

Major entities in offshore energy, defence and science are investing heavily in unmanned systems for “dull, dirty or dangerous” operations. Independent industry research estimates the USV market for defence alone to be a staggering US$3.8 billion by 2020.

In the recent trials, the ‘rudder flipper’ performed above expectations, giving boat speeds using wave power of between 0.5 and 1.5 knots against the seas and 1-3 knots with the seas in everything from Beaufort 1-6. However, the company believes there is room for improvement, so we’re experimenting with some different flipper designs, before more endurance testing starting on 22 July.

Ocius is working with two major private-sector partners to develop USVs capable of undertaking specific high-value applications in hydrography and defence.

BlueBottle has its origins following an inquiry from the US in 2007 for a ‘self-sustaining platform at sea’. Ocius began research into the development of unmanned solar/wind/wave and ballasted powered ocean vessels or autonomous USVs. Initially, a 20-foot manned engineering development model (EDM) proved the 'speed of advance' in all conditions, adequate power, payload and persistence for a sustainable platform able to go to sea for months.

With Ulladulla Fibreglass and Engineering, Ocius built multiple scale models for tank and lake testing, culminating in the building of the first 10-foot prototype called 'Nemo' (Latin for 'no one' i.e. unmanned), which provided significant proof of concept of a solar, wind and wave powered USV carrying a significant payload.

Based on Nemo's development, in 2015 Ocius was awarded a $3 million capability technology demonstrator (CTD) from Defence Science and Technology Group. This proved a significant contract and Ocius, with partners, developed an 18-foot prototype, 'Bruce', for anti-submarine warfare.

Aussie SME completes sea trials of BlueBottle USV off NSW coast
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