Hundreds of wind turbines are to be erected in the sea between Ireland and Finland in the coming years. Building, maintaining and maintaining them will be a billion-dollar business. Self-propelled ships should help reduce costs.

The working day of MC2500, called Nymo, begins on Tuesday evening, when the last ferry has left the port of Tallinn and is called the night over Estonia’s capital. The little red catamaran detaches from its docking station on the quay and slowly cruises up and down Tallinn’s docks. The eight-foot-long boat spends the whole night mapping the seabed, then plugs back into its charging station like a vacuum cleaner robot and sends the data to the port authority.

It took Heigo Molder two years to develop Nymo. He runs Mindchip, a spin-off from Tallinn University of Technology. Molder started with the development of autonomous robots that were supposed to drive on land, but then he went to sea. At the Small Craft Competence Center (SCC) at Tallinn University of Technology on the island of Saaremaa, he met Professor Kristjan Tarbi, who is considered the architect of the self-propelled boat. Nymo is only the first step. Mindchip has also had a six-meter-long, autonomously driving model for a year. It is to be loaned to the University of Tartu in the spring, which will equip it with a sonar capable of measuring fish stocks on the Baltic Sea coasts and calculating the corresponding catch quotas.

For Mindchips customers, the autonomous boats mean enormous time and money savings. Normally, manned ships would have to drive around the harbor basins and coastal regions. They are larger, consume more fuel and have higher personnel costs. Nymo and its big brother MC6000 are happy with a helmsman who can steer the boats remotely or set new routes from a warm control room on land.

So far there are only the two prototypes, but Molder has already cast his eye on really big business fish. 2849 offshore wind farms are currently being planned or under construction worldwide. Hundreds of them are to be built in the North and Baltic Seas alone. But before a wind farm can be erected in the sea, the seabed in the designated regions must be surveyed and mapped. Later, when the wind turbines are stationary (or floating), they need to be monitored and maintained. This is an enormous effort at sea, which could be made much easier if autonomously driving ships took over these tasks automatically. Mapping the seabed alone currently costs around 10,000 euros per square kilometer. An autonomous ship could do this for 2000 euros, a fifth of the original price.

So Mindchip from Estonia is by no means the only company that has kept an eye on the gap in the market. The US company Ocean Infinity recently delivered the first two 78-meter-long ammonia-powered robot boats to Norway. They are steered from shore and serve as a base for smaller, autonomous boats. The Norwegian company Maritime Robotics also presented its own autonomous ship in the summer, which is intended to survey the seabed. Even armaments companies like L3Harris from the USA want to play along. “The market is definitely big enough for many suppliers,” says Molder.

Germany alone has so far only built 28 of 188 planned wind farms on its coasts. Poland is planning a total of 91 projects, the Netherlands 135, Great Britain 234 and the Scandinavian and Baltic countries together 397. In the end, the two seas in northern Europe will be paved with wind turbines, covering thousands of square kilometers.

Technically, however, there is still a long way to go before all of these areas can be navigated with autonomous boats. Small boats like Nymo can cover around 70 kilometers with a battery, large ones like the MC6000, which are hybrid powered by electricity and diesel, have a range of 300 kilometers. “Technically, these are boats like any other,” says Molder. So the idea is: Why build your own boat when it’s all about the software for automatic steering anyway?

This gave rise to the idea of ​​the “Artificial Captain” (AC), which is already at the heart of two prototypes of Mindchips. Molder estimates that 70 percent of the development time went into the ship’s brain software. Visually it is unspectacular. He sits on a scaffolding on the boat as a hexagonal white box with a round head. Three cameras each observe the surroundings in four different directions. Recognizing obstacles is not that easy. “Because of the wave action, the cameras only see water or the sky half the time,” says Molder. The software is now working well. If the AC sees an obstacle, it stops the ship and waits. Only if it does not move away after a few minutes does it automatically avoid it.

For everything that is more than a few meters away from the ship, there is a mmWave radar on board. It can see up to 300 meters. The artificial captain recognizes everything that is even further away via the Automatic Identification System AIS, which every ship must have on board in order to constantly report its position to the environment by radio. The AC is also equipped with an AIS.

Mindchip’s competitors from other countries are working on similar papers. The highlight: Existing boats can also be retrofitted with an artificial captain. Connected to the on-board electronics, the IT brain can then steer the boats autonomously or have them remotely controlled from shore. In this way, regular service ships, which are used for the maintenance of wind turbines, for example, can be navigated through the North Sea and Baltic Sea without having to have any extra personnel with them. Technically and legally, however, this is still a dream of the future. Although Mindchip has already equipped a boat belonging to the Estonian Coast Guard with an artificial captain as a test, a person still has to be on the bridge to monitor the artificial helmsman and switch it off if necessary.

The wind farm operators are also watching the technical development with curious eyes. With a cost of 500,000 euros for a ship the size of an MC6000 and the need for hundreds of such autonomous boats in the future, some already find it cheaper to invest directly in the startups developing such ships. For example, the French energy supplier EDF is taking a stake in a shipbuilder. Corresponding cooperations have also been established in the USA and Great Britain.

Mindchip is also still looking for partners. The Estonian startup lacks the possibility for mass production. A handful of boats are to be built in the coming years by the boat builder Baltic Workboats, which is only a few kilometers away. Mindchip uses this to test for the Artificial Captain on larger boats.

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