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Unmanned, nanotech boat touted as future of coastal surveillance

posted 2 Jun 2011, 06:11 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 2 Jun 2011, 06:16 ]

Coastal surveillance and transportation in the 21st century will be dominated by unmanned, super lightweight vessels that can be controlled remotely, according to American engineering company, Zyvex. Based in Ohio, Zyvex has teamed up with it's Singapore-based sister company Zycraft, to create its version of the future - an ocean-going vessel built on nanotechnology and state-of-the-art guidance systems.

For visitors to the recent International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (IMDEX) in Singapore, Zycraft's "Vigilant", was a highlight. The company says it's

the first lightweight, nanotechnology-built unmanned boat, designed for coastal surveillance and transportation.

Both companies, Singapore based Zycraft and U.S. based Zyvex Labs have one man in common, James Von Ehr. He is the president of Zyvex Labs, which he created in 1997

as a nanotech company, and is also the Managing Director of Zycraft.

Zycraft designed the remote control system that guides the craft. Von Ehr says the boat weighs only four tonnes, whereas a conventional boat of the same size usually weighs four to five times as much.

The secret, he says, is the nano-technology incorporated in the hull. Nanotubes are extremeley strong, yet light. Von Ehr says nanotube materials are about 50 percent stronger than the next best materials in the world.

"We're the first company that has actually put it all together into a product, so I position this now as the world's largest nanotechnology demonstration because this boat could not be done without the nanotechnology materials that we have in it", said Von Ehr. "So what we have, it looks like carbon fiber, but it has nanotubes in it, which makes the epoxing stronger, which makes the whole material stronger. So as a result, because it is so strong it can be lighter, we use less material for the same strength, so when we are done making this boat, the hull, it's about 16 metres long, the hull is one solid fused piece of material, no welds of joints or fasteners, which is a unique way of building a boat", he said.

The Vigilant rides very high in the water. Von Ehr says the material is so light that the boat would keep floating even with a hole in its hull. It can also carry a payload heavier than its own weight over long distances.

"So we think we have a really brand new type of boat because of this increased range, so for example, our boat can go 2500 nautical miles (4630 kilometres) on one tank of fuel. A conventional boat of this size, made out of aluminum say, would go about 500 nautical miles (926 kilometres) on the same tank of fuel. So we think we have a very green boat, it's an exciting boat as a manned boat, but the really exciting thing to me, as a former software person, is the idea of putting the controls on this boat that through a satellite link will allow us to remotely pilot the boat," said Von Ehr.

The first version of the nanotech boat was a manned boat called the Piranha. Soon after Piranha was born, Von Ehr came with the idea of adding an efficient remote system, thereby creating the Vigilant.

Von Ehr says his new unmanned boat has many applications apart from state defence. He says he's trying to attract the interest of private firms such as oil companies which run oil rigs at sea.

The Vigilant can also help in surveillance, search and rescue work and the rapid transportation of people or material. It can also be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as it is unmanned. Pilots onshore can guide the vessle remotely for as long as required. Von Ehr says his boat can also potentially be used as an anti-piracy tool.

"Any country that has a coastline that they want to watch, defend, needs an unmanned boat because we can send the boat out there in very rough waters, conditions that a human would not be comfortable in. This boat can take such rough waves, that waves come literally crashing into the boat, higher than the boat and it can sit out into those waters 30 days at a time watching, observing, reporting," he said.

Presenting his new product at the maritime defence show in Singapore, Von Ehr said plenty of people were interested in the Vigilant.

He says he will be able to show those potential customers the finished Vigilant later in the summer after it's shipped from Seattle, where it is being built, to Singapore for final testing.