Advantages of Autonomous Watercraft

22 September 2020 | Global Public Health

Autonomous Boats and Watercraft for Public Health

During times of crisis – such as natural disasters, epidemics, and wars – traditional methods of transport can become quickly compromised. For example, two back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes devastated the Carribean in 2017, washing out roads, disabling airports, and even compromising seaplane routes. For weeks, the least compromised method of low-cost transport was by boat.

While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be effective for transporting small, lightweight supplies such as medical specimens, bags of blood, and other small but critical necessities, larger supplies usually require traditional, manned methods of transport to get from Point A to Point B. For most commercial UAS operations in U.S. airspace, the FAA requires a drone and its payload weigh less than 55 lbs. total, severely limiting what can be flown. (And with good reason – a 1000-lb drone could cause tremendous damage if it were to crash, for example.) The FAA also limits commercial drone flights to be flown within visual line of sight, which is problematic for missions that require supplies be flown many miles beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). While a BVLOS waiver can be acquired, it can take even large companies such as Amazon years to acquire. A safer, less expensive option to get large numbers of critical supplies between islands is via autonomous watercraft.

Autonomous watercraft have several advantages over autonomous aircraft:

– Heavier payload capacities. Watercraft in American waters are subject to the regulations of the U.S. Coast Guard and hence are not subject to the < 55-lb or BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) regulations. Unmanned boats can carry more fuel and cargo than the typical unmanned aerial system.

– Less risk. Boats can’t fall out of the sky like a UAV can. If a boat loses power, it simply coasts to a stop.

– More fuel-efficient. Because a boat doesn’t have to continuously fight gravity and keep aloft, it can transport heavier payloads with less energy from batteries or gas-powered engines.

– More economical. An autonomous watercraft that can carry hundreds of pounds of payload is far less expensive than an unmanned aerial vehicle with the same payload rating.

The obvious downside of boats is that a body of water is required for transport. However, many hospitals and disaster relief facilities throughout the Caribbean are located within close proximity to a beach where supplies can be easily retrieved. For these locations, autonomous watercraft are effective and efficient tools for rapid transport of critical supplies in times of crisis.