Researchers Developing Drone Boats Controlled via iPad
A 35-foot captainless boat comes to life with a swipe of a finger across an iPad, following the direction of the finger's drag.
By Xerxes Wilson, Daily Comet - Filed Feb 21, 2014

A collaboration between shipbuilder Swiftships and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette imagines the possibility of captainless boats navigating inland waterways near and far.

The Anaconda is a 35-foot boat marketed worldwide to military outfits seeking nimble maneuverability in tight and shallow waterways. UL researchers took to the Atchafalaya River Tuesday to demonstrate their progress outfitting the boat to autonomously navigate the challenges posed by inland waterways.

With the slide of an single finger across the screen of an iPad, the boat's Rolls Royce thrusters jolt to life, and the craft's direction follows the finger's drag.

“Today is remote control,” said Arun Lakhotia, professor of computer science at UL and the lead faculty member on the project. “It's to show that we can reliably communicate with the boat using an iPad and not crash.”

It's still early in the development project, which Morgan City-based Swiftships wants to make into something comparable to the U.S. military's Predator Drone but for inland waterways.

“This is the very first step in making it completely controlled by the computer,” Lakhotia said, adding focus will now turn to making the boat more “self-aware” of its surroundings and potential obstacles.

This will be achieved by employing a battery of sensors, including traditional optics, sonar and sophisticated laser-imaging technology to allow precise movement, Lakhotia said. He estimates his team is about a year and a half from having a boat that can autonomously operate at low speed.

While technology for automated navigation on water exists, Swiftships is hoping to develop a product capable of reacting to obstructions so humans can be taken out of dangerous situations, Swiftship's Director of Special Programs Eric Geibel said.

The Anaconda was initially developed more than a decade ago as part of an unsuccessful manned prototype seeking a U.S. Special Forces contract.

The boat can carry 22 and hit top speeds of 54 mph. It's designed for “extreme maneuverability” and the flexibility to be outfitted with anything from research equipment to automatic weapons, Swiftship President Jeff Leleux said, noting the Egyptians and Iraqis have purchased their special operations products.

The 43-year-old company has a history of developing military craft that dates back to the Vietnam War. Today the shipbuilder has orders for crew boats, barges and oilfield service vessels, Leleux said as he stood in front of the steel husks of two 150-foot oilfield service boats on order from Iraq's national oil company.

Once fully developed, the navigation system and boat probably will be marketed as a rescue or reconnaissance boat for military applications. Combat applications are also a possibility, Leleux said.

Lakhotia said the technology could have implications much closer than a foreign battlefield as the broader goal is to translate to technology to other platforms.

“It can be transformative to the region,” Lakhotia said, imagining unmanned barges and offshore service vessels on local rivers and bayous.

He added they are seeking to make the technology so precise it could at least aid in the duties of a vessel captain in situations where human presence is required.

Lakhotia's team caught the company's eye more than six years ago when UL's semi-autonomous Cajun Bot competed against schools like MIT and Cal Tech in the 2005 and 2006 Grand Challenge, which was hosted by an offshoot of the Department of Defense.

“It's a beautiful collaboration between industry and the university,” Lakhotia said, explaining the university has a research and development contract with Swiftships that will see any commercial success of the product benefit the institution.

The oilfield's private industry is known more for its secrecy than technical collaboration with academic institutions, something the development of such a product could change, Lakhotia said.

“We can do research as well as any place, and we want the oilfield to take advantage of the resources we have,” Lakhotia said. “It's no longer good enough to say 'We have a great weld shop.' We are pushing boundaries.”

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, took the boat for a spin and said the technology is indicative of the innovation needed to grow Louisiana's shipbuilding industry.

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