Somerville startup is testing an unmanned catamaran that will be capable of months-long voyages

The Datamaran, from Autonomous Marine Systems of Somerville, sailing on the Charles River.
The Datamaran, from Autonomous Marine Systems of Somerville, sailing on the Charles River.

If you’re hoping to spot the world’s most advanced self-driving cars, you probably want to be near Google HQ in Silicon Valley.

But if you want to see one of the world’s most advanced self-sailing catamarans, all you need to do is scan the Charles River this morning between the Longfellow and Massachusetts Avenue bridges.

A Somerville startup called Autonomous Marine Systems has had its Datamaran in the water since around 1 p.m. on Monday for testing. The company is working toward what it hopes will be a two-week long sail outside of Boston Harbor later this year.

To spot it, just look for the smallest catamaran on the water, with twin solar panels above each float — instead of an MIT undergrad learning how to sail.

eamon-with-antennaAMS’ vision, explains co-founder Eamon Carrig, right, is to design a watercraft that can stay at sea for up to six months, powered by only the wind and the sun. The current prototype of the Datamaran can carry up to 50 pounds of payload, which could be instruments for monitoring marine life or detecting oil spills; cameras; or sonar for seeing what’s happening beneath the waves. The instruments are powered by the craft’s solar panels, which store electricity in two on-board batteries. That electricity also moves the rudder and a prop that is used to supply extra speed when needed. The Datamaran uses GPS signals to chart a pre-programmed course, or to “station-keep,” remaining close to a particular spot.

On Monday, I hopped aboard a small motorboat piloted by Carrig to visit the Datamaran in the middle of the river. It was tracing figure eights amidst moderate sailboat traffic; it seemed like some boats were deliberately coming close to check it out. (Carrig told me that MIT often tests unmanned boats — known as Autonomous Surface Vehicles — in the area, and one had recently been attacked by a seemingly inebriated kayaker who whacked it with his paddle.)

What happens if the Datamaran collides with another boat, or vice versa? “It’s 150 pounds of styrofoam,” Carrig said. “It could be plowed full speed by a pleasure craft and it’d be no big deal for anybody.” It carries lights for nighttime operation. And while Datamaran’s operators aren’t constantly keeping an eye on it, if they spotted an imminent collision, they could take manual control and try to avert it.

Out on the ocean, Carrig expects the biggest dangers will be collisions with much larger craft, and pirates. Pirates? Really? Carrig explains that they often strip equipment from buoys, and he wouldn’t be surprised if they did the same if they came across a defenseless Datamaran.

datamaran2Autonomous Marine System was incorporated in 2009 by Carrig and co-founder T.J. Edwards. (A third employee, Andrew Punoose, previously worked for SpaceX, the space transport company.) AMS moved to Massachusetts from Virginia late last year, a few months after raising $650,000 in seed funding. It has built three different unmanned boats so far. “This is the first one ready for ocean,” Carrig says, adding that they are planning to build a new version in early 2016. (Winter testing happens in Key West, Florida.)

Carrig says his team recently “changed out a motor and reconfigured the electronics” on the Datamaran, and so this week’s testing on the river is to make sure everything is working properly. The company’s upcoming plans include a two-week trial off the coast of Massachusetts, followed by longer trips to Bermuda and, eventually, across the Atlantic.

Rather than selling the Datamaran, Carrig says the company initially plans to rent it out to oceanographic researchers and others interested in using it to collect data.

The startup’s motto: “Never send a sailor to do a robot’s job.”

Company-supplied videos are below, including one showing how the Datamaran can right itself after capsizing.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
Follow Scott on Twitter - Facebook - Google+