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Autonomous Sightings

These days, everything seems to be droning on. What with your self-driving cars, boats, and not far on the horizon . . . ships. That’s right, giant, automated ships. "Spurred in part by the auto industry’s race to build driverless vehicles, marine innovators are building automated ferry boats for Amsterdam canals, cargo ships that can steer themselves through Norwegian fjords and remote-controlled ships to carry containers across the Atlantic and Pacific. The first such autonomous ships could be in operation within three years," the LA Times reported last year.

It’s not just ships, either. In SoCal, long-time reader and part-time contributor Bruce Balan spotted a strange human-less vehicle in Long Beach.

"We’re often docked near the boatyard in Alamitos Bay, and have seen this interesting craft towed in and out several times," wrote Bruce Balan. It won’t be long before we don’t just have to keep an eye out for Saildrones and garbage-patch booms, but autonomous submarines as well.

© 2018 Bruce Balan

The UFO in question was Boeing’s Echo Voyager, a 51-ft unmanned sub (and we don’t mean a sandwich that eats itself) whose exact mission is unclear. "The aerospace company looks to demonstrate the underwater drone’s more sophisticated capabilities for a US Navy contract competition," the LA Times said.

The Echo Voyager "is being designed to glide just beneath the waves or along the ocean floor for months at a time with little to no contact with human operators. Its missions could include surveillance that would be either too mundane or dangerous for human submarine crews to tackle and reconnaissance."

© 2018 Bruce Balan

And as our readers are likely aware, the Bay Area’s own Saildrone is building a fleet of sailing robots that have been circling the globe and collecting scientific data (Saildrones are entirely wind-powered, where the Echo Voyager is a hybrid, running on diesel and batteries). Last week, globetrotting, Figure 8-ing sailor Randall Reeves spotted one of the super-cool, bright-orange, 20-something-ft USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) headed back to the Bay — presumably to Saildrone headquarters in Alameda.

OK, so you kinda got to squint to see it, but once you’re focused, that is the unmistakable hard wing and "trim-tab" (our word) of the famed Saildrone, which Randall Reeves encountered off the Bay Area coast last week.

© 2018 Randall Reeves

What do you think about all these self-driving watercraft? Super cool? A little scary? Does this all feel a bit like act one in a bad ’80s science fiction flick, where the machines are just one algorithm away from taking over? Do any merchant marines out there worry about losing their jobs to automation? We’d like to know.

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Hurricane Michael has gradually ramped up in strength to a Category 4 storm over the last few days, as it ascended the Gulf of Mexico and veered toward Florida’s Panhandle.
On July 10, Morning Star prepares to anchor in Hanalei Bay.  latitude/Chris
© Latitude 38 Media, LLC Singlehanded TransPacific Yacht Race rookie Lee Johnson sailed a Valiant 32, Morning Star, in the race from Tiburon to Hanalei, Kauai, in July, and he departed from Nawiliwili Harbor, bound for San Francisco, on July 20, rather later than his fellow Transbackers.