Self-piloting boat could guide itself across LI Sound to supply North Shore food market

Since opening a year ago, the Harbor Harvest market on the waterfront in Halesite has been stocked by a hybrid-powered catamaran traveling across Long Island Sound from Connecticut.

Now that vessel, the Captain Ben Moore, is being retrofitted with a remote-control system that will make it the first-known autonomously operated cargo vessel in the United States, officials said.

The boat, the market on Huntington Harbor and a four-year-old food store of the same name in Connecticut are all owned by First Harvest Navigation of Norwalk, a company that prides itself on being cutting-edge environmentally and technologically. So last month it began installing the $100,000 SM300 remote-helm control system from Boston-based Sea Machines Robotics that allows the vessel to be operated with no crew aboard.

But First Harvest plans to keep its crew in place as it carries fresh produce and other food items— and sometimes passengers — across the Sound and moves cargo from other customers to and from other destinations. Company president Bob Kunkel said that after concluding discussions with the Coast Guard over vessel safety and computer security to prevent hacking, the rest of the software and hardware will be installed, probably by February, and then testing can begin on the Sound. He hopes to have the control system on the 65-foot aluminum catamaran in full operation by spring.

Kunkel said trucking the food products from Connecticut to Long Island would be more than an eight-hour round trip, while the catamaran reaches Huntington in about 40 minutes.