Plymouth Sound to become proving ground for autonomous marine vessels

Plymouth Sound is to become a proving ground for autonomous marine vessels following the installation of a sensor system with artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning technology.

Plymouth Sound
Two Thales unmanned surface vessels entering Plymouth Sound for the first time (Pic: Shaun Roster Photography)

M Subs, a Plymouth-based specialist in manned and unmanned underwater vehicles, has installed the system that includes a network of cameras, radar, anemometers, and automated information systems (AIS) for tracking ships, as well as wind turbines, solar panels and 4G communications technology.

“Several years ago we started working with the city to look at how we could create a proving ground, where we could safely operate unmanned vehicle systems,” said managing director Brett Phaneuf.

Working alongside Thales, the company is now in talks to convert part of a building on the waterfront into a “traffic control centre” for autonomous vessels.

This centre will combine all of the sensor data from out at sea and within the harbour to create a model, allowing the machine learning algorithms to identify and track any objects in the water.

The system will also look at how vessels behave when they are in the Sound, in order to spot signs of distress, such as being somewhere they should not be, said Phaneuf.

The team plan to insert a synthetic ship into the model, which will navigate through this dynamic environment, taking account of the wind and weather conditions.

This will allow thousands of algorithms to be tested simultaneously on the same dataset. And by carrying out post-mission analysis of the data, they will be able to further enhance the algorithms, according to Chris Wardman at Thales.

Real autonomous vessels will also be inserted into the test range, with which the AI system will communicate, said Phaneuf.

“[The ships] can then talk amongst themselves, and figure out the optimal course to avoid hitting each other, and to achieve their objectives.”

The sensor system currently reaches a few kilometres out to sea, but within the next five years the team hope to cover several hundred kilometres with instrumentation.

They also plan to test their systems on the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, which will be sailing from Plymouth to Plymouth in the US in September 2020, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the original Mayflower.

“Mayflower is going to be sailing around the Sound, testing all of this equipment, and this equipment will be tested on it,” said Phaneuf.