Swiftships of Morgan City and researchers with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette were thrilled with the 60-mph remote-controlled performance Tuesday of the Anaconda, a 35-foot prototype vessel for special operation forces, which promises both military and commercial applications.
The vessel, designed as a riverine assault craft with a pair of 480-horsepower Yanmar motors that powers the Rolls Royce jets, took several remote-controlled test runs in the muddy Atchafalaya River.
Joshua Vaughan, an assistant professor in UL-Lafayette’s Mechanical Engineering Department, maneuvered the craft while on board with an iPad. This was a demonstration of the first phase of the technology that anticipates the boat autonomously navigating a route to any selected destination.
Vaughan and his team of mechanical engineering graduate students, including Nicholas Bergeron and Brett Marks, were not only demonstrating the technology but also selling the concept that its application could be used in a non-military commercial setting.
Vaughan showed how easily the technology can be used by handing his iPad that controlled the vessel to several of the civilians allowed onboard.
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, took a ride on the boat. The partnership between the local shipbuilder and UL-Lafayette “is what the future of Louisiana is all about,” he said.
“This is a great example of a Louisiana company at the cutting edge of maritime technology,” Boustany said. “At the end of the day, all of this means Louisiana can be a renaissance in shipbuilding.”
Bergeron said the team will move to making the vessel completely autonomous in the next phase.
“The next step is to use aides in operating the vessel to allow it to work its way along a river and arrive at a selected point,” Bergeron said.
Navigation electronics and aids will be tied in to an onboard computer system which will allow the craft to sense speed, currents, obstacles, other marine traffic and even river banks to navigate just as well as a human pilot without putting soldiers in harm’s way.
Khurram Shah, Swiftships chief strategy officer, said the Morgan City shipbuilder prides itself in building vessels that are tailored to the needs of its customers.
The craft was designed for the U.S. Navy so it can move small deployments in as little as 18 inches of water without being observed or compromising the element of surprise using in-house technology that muffles the sound.
“This vessel is specifically designed for special operations and stealth missions,” Shah said. “We have had special ops people in Morgan City looking at this boat and they are extremely interested in it.”
Since 2012, Swiftships, in collaboration with the university, has been working together to apply technology and design a completely autonomous vessel, by being able to navigate pre-programmed GPS way points without any human interaction. This advanced application will be the final phase for Project Anaconda, Shah said.
Ramesh Kolluru, interim vice-president for research at UL-Lafayette, said Tuesday’s demonstration was a milestone.
“Today is an important step,” Kolluru said. “Swiftships is a great forward-moving company and we are pleased with our partnership. Together we are developing technology in Louisiana that can be exported globally. These kinds of projects will determine the future of marine operations.”
Azmy Ackleh, dean of the College of Sciences at UL-Lafayette, said the application of the technology can extend to commercial shipping and even supply boats; the possibilities are endless, he said.
Vaughan agreed that the technology he and his team were developing had potential beyond the military role. He thinks the technology will be “ready for the public before the public is ready for the technology.”
He points to the Google driverless car that involves technology for autonomous cars with software called Google Chauffeur.
“The Google car has over half a million miles but is the public ready to take their hands off of a steering wheel?” Vaughan said.
The future of this kind of technology and its application in military or commercial settings depends on collaborations with forward thinking companies like Swiftships and well-funded research performed by highly qualified universities, Ackleh said.
“This project shows how the experience and knowledge at a university are fundamental to the advancement of technology,” Ackleh said.
Tuesday’s trial run was judged a success by Ali Kazilbash, the Anaconda project manager for Swiftships.
“It was a great day for the performance of the boat and the success of its technology with a lot of important people here,” Kazilbash said.
Besides having Boustany present for the test run, Swiftships invited media from as far away as Baton Rouge as well as international trade specialist Brie Knox from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“We are here to support Swiftships and to help U.S. companies export their products overseas,” Knox said.
Getting to the end of Phase 1 of development, remote controlled operation, took nearly a year and final completion is a multi-year project, Vaughan said. “These are the first little baby steps,” he said.