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Autonomous shipping: a new era for connected sea operations

28 Jan 2022Digital Society
2 minute read

On 15 October 2021, a tugboat named Nellie Bly docked in the Port of Hamburg after a 13-day journey along the east coast of Denmark. In just 129 operational hours, it had achieved something remarkable. It became the first commercial vessel in the world to complete an autonomous voyage of over 1,000 nautical miles[i] – a voyage aptly named the Machine Odyssey.

<em>The Nellie Bly, controlled remotely, connected to Vodafone’s 4G network</em>

The Nellie Bly, controlled remotely, connected to Vodafone’s 4G network

The project was led by Boston-based company Sea Machines in collaboration with Vodafone, which provided the tugboat with near shore 4G roaming connectivity through its journey.

At the heart of the Nellie Bly was Sea Machines Robotics’ SM300 command and control system. The system enabled not only waypoint autonomy, but also remote command – allowing officers at their Boston headquarters to control the tug from over 3,000 miles away.

<em>Officers at Sea Machines’ Boston HQ controlled the tugboat remotely</em>

Officers at Sea Machines’ Boston HQ controlled the tugboat remotely

Thanks to an array of sensors, the tug’s control system was able to scan over 12,000 square miles of ocean at a level of detail impossible for humans, allowing for safe and predictable navigation. Its journey demonstrated to the world’s fleets that vessels with integrated autonomous technologies can deliver enhanced safety, reliability, and new seagoing capabilities – such as dynamic situational awareness.

<em>Smart sensors support the tugboat’s safe navigation</em>

Smart sensors support the tugboat’s safe navigation

Vodafone’s broad coverage, high-speed, low latency 4G network kept the vessel connected when near shore, with over one terabyte of data transferred between the boat and control room in Boston, helping support its safe and secure navigation of coastal waters.  

<em>Nellie Bly completed the first remotely controlled voyage over 1,000 nautical miles</em>

Nellie Bly completed the first remotely controlled voyage over 1,000 nautical miles

Michael Johnson, CEO of Sea Machines said: “The completion of this voyage marks the catalyst for a new era of at-sea operations.

“Remotely commanded autonomous vessels provide the marine industries with the platform necessary to be competitive, delivering significant increases in productivity and operational safety, digitised ultra-efficiency and response speed.”

Connie Tang, Head of Commercial at Vodafone Roaming Services said: “The Machine Odyssey shows that while 4G/LTE will not fully replace satellite in open water operations, it can provide key benefits in coastal areas, such as higher data speeds.

“Hybrid connectivity models that combine 4G and satellite will be crucial as commercial fleets modernise.”

Vodafone – a global maritime connectivity partner

Vodafone is partnering with innovators to help open the world’s oceans to more efficient and sustainable means of transportation.

Our global 4G roaming footprint, 5G networks, world-class mobile data connectivity, and roaming plans are helping create a new era of autonomous shipping.


[i] As of October 2021.

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