Saturday, September 23, 2023

Autonomous boats sail the high seas

Must read

Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship has finally arrived on the coast of Nova Scotia last month, marking the end of his long trek across the Atlantic. While the modern Mayflower is far from the first ship to make that journey, this tiny robotic boat is the largest ever navigated by artificial intelligence with no humans on board. A few technical hiccups nevertheless, his journey is the latest evidence that the future of the high seas could be autonomous.

Slowly self-steering ships are becoming a reality. In Norway, an autonomous battery-powered container ship shuttles fertilizer between a factory and a local port, and pending a successful trial, it could be fully certified within the next two years. A commercial tanker called the Prism courage recently traveled from Texas, through the Panama Canal, to South Korea, guided by software of Avikus, a subsidiary of HD Hyundai, a shipbuilding company that spin-off of the car group. There are even some boats meant to transport people that can now operate independently: A self-driving water taxi created by the artificial intelligence startup Buffalo Automation was ready to transport people across the Tennessee River in downtown Knoxville, at least from April.

Not all robo boats are created equal. Some current AI sailing software is supportive and requires at least some form of supervision by a person on board, while more advanced technology can steer a ship completely independently, without the need for humans. Either way, this new generation of autonomous ships will make humans a more marginal part of life at sea. Because many self-steering boats are still relatively new, there is not yet enough evidence to prove that the technology that powers these ships is as capable as human navigators. Still, these vehicles can make it not only easier to navigate the world’s waterways, but with a smaller carbon footprint than manned boats.

“A computer can optimize for fuel economy and integrate a lot of different inputs about how fast they have to go through the water to reach their destination in time, what the weather conditions are, how the ship works, [and] how the engines work,” Trevor Vieweg, chief technology officer at Sea Machines Robotics, a startup that designs self-propelled boats, told Recode. “By using the same technologies, we can reduce CO2 emissions – and fuel consumption in general.”

To navigate independently, an autonomous boat typically needs a wide variety of sensors, including cameras and radar, as well as data from other sources, such as GPS. These sensors are placed around the ship and help a ship plan its route and detect nearby obstacles, such as a floating piece of wood or a piece of iceberg. As with self-driving cars, autonomous ships can be classified into different levels based on how well their technology can perform without human assistance. The International Maritime Organisation, the United Nations agency that regulates shipping, has proposed a spectrum of autonomy, starting with level 1 ships. served by people but could enable AI to make some unsupervised decisions, ramping up in sophistication to level 4 ships that could sail completely independently, without requiring human intervention or decision making.

Proponents say these ships are less prone to human error – ship and boat accidents to be something common — and could allow boat operators to reassign workers to other tasks where they can be more productive. Artificial intelligence can also navigate ships more efficientand make better calculations about routes and speeds. The hope is that by saving time and, perhaps most importantly, fuel, ocean-going vessels can reduce their energy consumption, which continues to be a major contributor to climate change. In the absence of full autonomy, some experts even have suggested that software could allow people to control boats remotely, bringing several benefits. For example, remotely piloted ships reduce the risk of disease spread via international freight transport, which is a concern during the Covid-19 pandemic.

At present, ships with autonomous capabilities represent a small fraction of the many ships in operation today. But in the future, self-steering ships could make all kinds of activities on the water easier. For example, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, supported in part by IBM, was designed to study ocean health, record audio from marine life, and sample microplastics. The boat has no deck, bathrooms or bunk beds, and much of the space inside is taken up by technology, such as the on-board computers, batteries and motors.

“If there are no people on board, the space they occupy and the supplies needed to maintain the human presence, or eliminate it, as well as the strength required to support the weight of the ship that goes with it,” says Ayse Atauz Phaneuf, the president of ProMare, the marine research organization that contributed to the project. “Unmanned vehicles such as the Mayflower Autonomous Project will be able to spend significantly longer periods of time at sea, accessing important but distant parts of the ocean.”

Phaneuf told Recode that the vehicle, and others who like it, could eventually make ocean exploration expeditions much cheaper to launch. In addition to making it easier to study the ocean, autonomous ships could also make it easier to carry cargo. In Japan, a partnership between a non-profit and freight forwarding companies successfully shown earlier this year, autonomous container ships were able to sail between ports across the country. The demonstration was intended to prove that these vehicles could ultimately help reduce shipping need for workersespecially when Japan is faced with a aging population. There are also organizations such as a sea, which has brought together shipping and AI companies to advance autonomous maritime transport and advance the technology involved.

There are also those environmental benefits. HD Hyundai’s navigation technology uses artificial intelligence to determine a ship’s routes and speeds, and the software also takes into account the height of nearby waves and the behavior of neighboring ships. The company says by using this AI, the Prism courage — the commercial tanker passing through the Panama Canal — strengthens reduce its fuel efficiency by about 7 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent. While that may not seem like much, those savings can add up quickly.

Autonomous ships do have headwinds. An industry expert we spoke to said that smaller boats, such as survey ships and ferries, are more likely to use autonomous technology than the large container ships that make up most of the world’s freight traffic. some critics, including Maersk’s CEO, have argued that the savings that can come from standalone software may not be enough to incentivize large shipping companies to invest in the technology, especially since many ocean carriers do not use particularly large crews in the first place (a typical freighter can to have only 20 workers on board). Another concern is that autonomous software could make these ships more vulnerable to cyber-attacks non-autonomous shipping activities have already been hacked.

And finally, there is also the extremely complicated issue of international maritime law, which may not be prepared for the advent of artificial intelligence.

“How should we deal with the liability problem where an autonomous system, although well designed and maintained, operates unpredictably?” Melis Ozdel, the director of the University College London Center for Commercial Law, told Recode. Of course, there are many ways autonomous ships can change life at sea, whether it’s the possibility of a robot boat crashing on a cruise full of tourists, or the uncertain fate of pirates who can capture a ship, only to discover that it’s actually remote control.

AI ships have already shown that they can work, at least sometimes, although the technology that powers these ships is still under development and may take years to fully take off. Still, all signs point to these next-generation boats having advantages. Ultimately, sailing may seem a little less like weeks at sea and more like tracking a ship from the comfort of an office conveniently located on land.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Register here so you don’t miss the next one!

More articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest article