Project launched to develop autonomous search-and-rescue boat

Credit: Hike Metal/Sea Machines

Canadian-based boat builder Hike Metal has teamed up with Sea Machine Robotics, a US company, to develop an unmanned search-and-rescue (SAR) boat.  

The SAR boat integrates Sea Machines’ SM300 autonomous vessel control system developed for commercial vessels into the SAR boats built by Hike Marine. The collaboration will help develop and demonstrate the capabilities of autonomous marine technology for the purposes of increasing the productivity and more importantly, the safety of SAR operations.

Once installed, Sea Machines claims that the SM300 will add new capabilities to Hike Metal’s SAR vessels. These will include enabling minimally manned and unmanned autonomous operations, which will allow operators to respond to rescue events anytime of the day or night, even when crews are unavailable or their availability is restricted.  

In addition to this autonomous capability, the craft will be able to follow pre-planned routes and search patterns and operate in collaborative vessel operations.  

The equipment also allows for the vessels to operate in obstacle avoidance mode when entering distant waters. 

It is planned that Phase I demonstrations of the autonomous operations will begin this summer, near Hike Metal’s headquarters on Lake Erie. These will be carried out using a newly build, 27 ft-long rigid-inflatable boat (RIB), which will be powered by a pair of 200 hp outboard motors.  

The RIB has a forward enclosed wheelhouse that also provides for a heated survivor seating area. Other equipment on board will be a remote-controlled forward looking infrared camera system and remotely controlled rescue cradles for survivor recovery. The boat will also be fitted with extended range fuel reserve tanks.

“Response times are critical in the success of search-and-rescue missions, due to the limited survival time of victims who fall overboard and inherent risks to rescuers,” said Don Black, Sea Machines’ vice president of sales and marketing. “Our technologies installed aboard responding vessels reduce response times and increase productivity of on-water search operations, improving safety for all involved.”

“We have seen the need to increase response capabilities and also reduce the risk to first responders. We feel this technology and its platform will be a valuable tool to all Coast Guard Societies around the world,” said Roger Stanton, senior project manager at Hike Metal.

The use of autonomous SAR craft could be expanded into unmanned rescue boats for carriage on board ships, expanding their operational capability when the master deems it too risky to use his own crew on SAR operations.

In addition to this SAR autonomy application, Sea Machines is also developing advanced perception and navigation assistance technology for a range of vessel types, including container ships. The company is currently testing this technology aboard one of A.P. Moller-Maersk’s newly build ice-class container ships. 

Hike Metal has been building custom steel and aluminum boats since 1958 and has search-and-rescue experience from a multiyear, multimillion dollar coastguard project to supply new vessels to the Canadian Coast Guard. The company has a long-standing relationship with the Canadian Coast Guard spanning over four decades.