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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."

Updated 60 mins ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker