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The Nellie Bly, a standard 36-foot tugboat that's been equipped to operate autonomously. Photo: Arie Boer/Sea Machines Robotics

The Nellie Bly is currently about three-quarters of the way through its mission: To become the first autonomously operated tugboat to complete a long-haul run.

Why it matters: While many tugs are already using autonomous technology for short ship-to-shore runs, it would be much cheaper and easier for long-haul vessels — like oil tankers, container ships and ocean-floor survey boats — to use autonomous tugs as their scouts.

Driving the news: A Boston-based company called Sea Machines Robotics — a pioneer in autonomous tug technology — has outfitted a 36-foot tugboat called the Nellie Bly with the self-driving equipment it needs to circumnavigate Denmark, a voyage of more than 1,000 nautical miles (about 1,150 regular miles).

  • The Nellie Bly left on Sept. 30 and is expected to arrive at its destination on Oct. 16. (Fans can follow its progress on a dashboard that includes a live stream when the boat is in motion.)
  • A normal tugboat would have a rotation of people with hands on the wheel at all times. The Nellie Bly has only two people on board — for "safety and redundancy" —  while a team from a control room in Boston keeps the boat on course.
  • So far, "we've been able to operate 99% autonomously," Amelia Smith, a spokeswoman for Sea Machines Robotics, tells Axios. "There've been periods of time when there have been people involved [in controlling the vessel], and that's OK."
  • The Nellie Bly — which is pushing a barge from Rotterdam, Netherlands, to Hamburg, Germany — has already avoided 117 obstacles that could have been potential collisions.

The big picture: The ability to rely on computer-run tugs for long-haul sea voyages is "going to make the industry more productive" and "put a lot more vessels on water," Michael G. Johnson, CEO of Sea Machine Robotics, tells Axios.

  • Autonomous tugs could make a big difference to vessels that clean up oil spills, survey the ocean floor for wind farms, and transport cargo around the world (like the ones that are currently piling up at U.S. ports).
  • "We are proving that we can command that same journey through a remote commander, somebody that's not on the tug itself," Johnson said. "Our goal is that 99% of the continuous control effort is being managed by the autonomy system."
  • The idea is that "the human has been elevated from somebody that's staring out the windows and holding the wheel throughout the journey to somebody who's now in charge of the operation."

The bottom line: Tides, water currents and the lack of marked lanes make autonomous driving a lot different in the water than on pavement, but the development of computer-controlled boating is happening at the same rapid pace that automakers are pursuing automated vehicles.

Go deeper

These e-boats are made for drivin'

The Eelex 8000 in the water. Photo courtesy of X Shore

Electric boat-maker X Shore, which debuted in the U.S. at the Palm Beach International Boat Show in March, is looking into manufacturing somewhere in America — possibly in Florida.

Why it matters: The company opened its first U.S. logistics office in Sarasota this year and has found "quick demand" in the market for its Eelex 8000 — a high-priced, all-electric boat some call "the Tesla of the Sea."

Biden: "Being a cop today is one hell of a lot harder than it's ever been"

President Biden speaks during the 40th Annual National Peace Officers Memorial Service at the U.S Capitolon Oct. 16. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden speaking at the U.S. Capitol on Saturday honored members of law enforcement who died in the line of duty in 2019 and 2021 and saluted those who are currently serving.

Driving the news: "We expect everything of you, and it's beyond the capacity of anyone to meet the total expectations. Being a cop today is one hell of a lot harder than it's ever been," Biden said.

Updated 5 hours ago - World

Islamic State claims responsibility for deadly bombing in southern Afghanistan

The mosque after the explosion in southern Kandahar province on Oct. 15. Photo: Murteza Khaliqi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a massive blast that tore through a crowded Shiite mosque in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Friday, killing at least 47 people and injuring dozens more, AP reports.

Why it matters: Friday's attack was the deadliest to strike Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrew its troops from the region and is the second major attack on a Shiite mosque in a week, underscoring the Taliban's growing security threat from other militant groups.