Maritime Robotx Challenge & the WAM-V USV, heads up!

QUT Maritime RobotX challenge WAM-V courtesy QUT.JPG

Right now it’s possible to come upon an unmanned surface vessel (USV) like this trying to navigate waterways all over the world, though rest assured that there will be a boatload of attentive geeks nearby. That’s because fifteen student/professor engineering teams from five countries have been given a basic 16-foot WAM-V articulating catamaran to which they are adding propulsion and control systems for the upcoming Maritime RobotX Challenge in Singapore. The contest strikes me as a great way to accelerate robotics development, but of course one eventuality would be unmanned vessels roaming the coasts. In fact, that may already be happening…

Embry-Riddle RobotX Team courtesy RAFR.jpg

The Team QUT USV in the top photo is being prepared in Queensland, Australia, while the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University team above is in Daytona Beach, Florida. I have no idea what those wooden “outdrives” are about, but I have learned that the big red kill switches on the cross beams are required so that a manned support vessel can come alongside and disable an unruly USV. A redundant and more elegant wireless kill switch is also required, suggesting that unruliness is to be expected.


One reason the team websites are fun to browse is that they are one element in the Challenge judging, though the big points get earned for robotically reporting location, accurate depth, buoy colors and more, while negotiating a course. 600 points also go to a USV that can maneuver to the “CORRECT dock,” though teams get 50 points for making “any dock” (kind of like cruising :-).

Incidentally, the AUVSI Foundation organizing this first ever event already runs annual RoboBoat and RoboSub contests. What’s noteworthy about Maritime RobotX — besides the focus on electric propulsion and robotic control — is that the U.S. Office of Naval Research stepped up with the “boats” and grant money. Go Navy!


Marine Advanced Research — developers of Wave Adaptive Modular Vessels (WAM-V) — is based near San Francisco. In fact, the company and chief designer Ugo Conti got some Panbo attention in 2007 with a large, wild-looking manned WAM-V called Proteus. The 16-foot unmanned WAM-V looks tame by comparison, but also seems practical for many tasks. And yes, that is a Google “street view” camera mounted on one above…


The Google Maps WAM-V footage is pretty limited so far, but still a neat way to see some of the SF waterfront. (It also pairs well with the “street view” of a research vessel once docked here). But I’m pretty sure that the odd RIB I screen-captured above is making sure that the USV doesn’t get itself into unmanned trouble. How, for instance, does a USV handle right-of-way situations? Maybe that will be part of another Maritime RobotX Challenge in 2015? Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how things go in Singapore starting on October 20th. They even have a cool logo.


Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

9 Responses

  1. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Obviously there are all sorts of ways a USV may be used, some of which we may not enjoy, but here’s an example of a unmanned aerial system (UAS) helping to rescue lost hikers:
    Incidentally, there seems to be a lot of confusion and names and acronyms for these new machines. Sometimes, for instance, USV means unmanned surface vehicle, though vessel seems more specific.

  2. Does anyone else think Task 6 should be: “Successfully transit a fleet of El Toros at the Yacht Club”? With extra points for “no screaming”..

  3. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Email from a pilot friend:
    Good article Ben, pretty soon none of us will have to leave our desks! I’ve been bothered by the near total adoption of “drone” for a long time, searching for a pithy succinct summation that would stop the madness, so far: failure. The onslaught of meaningless “TLA”’s (3 letter acronyms) is only making it worse, as you alluded in your post, and the media is now so addicted to the high emotion attached to “drone”, a more neutral moniker is unlikely to stick.
    I was reading yesterday about the latest NASA spacecraft to enter autonomous orbit around Mars, dubbed “MAVEN”…
    …and it occurred to me that NASA has been in out in front of this image problem since Gemini. Nobody ever calls their stuff “drones”! Even if they were armed with anti-Mars-muslim missiles, no one would call them drones I bet. A GPS or other satellite? Now there’s a drone!
    Remotely piloted vehicles are anything but drones, but thanks to our bloodthirsty tendency to first figure out how to kill people with new technology, they have a long uphill road in the public perception march.
    Glad to see people with some visibility (Panbo) taking the time to post non-lethal uses of UAV/UAS/RPV/FPV/UMS/WTF?/OMG!

  4. USV could fit nicely into water quality scenarios in which government agencies and citizen scientists contribute data to large public datasets. Obviously, USVs could be deployed to cover more water surface area than stationary points (e.g., buoys) and research vessels.

  5. Pat McQueen says:

    Norse – This one is even cooler looking. I still can’t imagine docking that large of a ship without a captain at the helm.
    Great article Ben!

  6. Richard Daltry says:

    I read this site regularly and its great to see an article about the unmanned marine vehicle industry, especially as it uses a lot of the technology this site is all about. I work for a company that builds Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV’s) in the UK and US. We refer to them as Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASV’s) as this is what they will become as the technology advances and also happens to be the name of our company.
    One of the reasons I read this site is that I can see a point in the future where the electronics and software that are being developed to autonomously navigate an ASV within Colregs will almost certainly have applications on manned boats to for example, improve navigational safety in fog or at night.
    If you’re interested our website is
    Many thanks for the great site!

  7. This Office of Naval Research press release
    and its YouTube video of a recent demo
    are attracting press interest worldwide.
    [aside: One of those boats has two radars mounted side-by-side. That surprised me.]

  8. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Hey, the MIT/Olin team from New England USA won!
    There’s lots of good video coverage; I suggest starting with the one called “Meet the Course”…

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