The autonomous ship Mayflower has finally arrived on the shores of Nova Scotia last month, marking the end of his long journey 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 to do so, and is piloted by artificial intelligence without humans. A few technically hiccups nevertheless, his journey is the latest proof that the future of the high seas could be autonomous.
Slowly, self-driving ships are becoming a reality. In Norway, autonomous battery powered container ship transports fertilizer between the factory and the local port, and pending successful testing, it could be fully certified within the next two years. A commercial tanker was calling the Prism Courage recently traveled from Texas, through the Panama Canal, to South Korea, software driven from Avikus, a subsidiary of HD Hyundai, the shipbuilder that was separated from the group of cars. There are even some boats designed to transport people that can now operate independently: a self-driving water taxi created by artificial intelligence startup Buffalo Automation was ready to ferry people across the Tennessee River in downtown Knoxville, at least since April.
Not all robo-boats are created equal. Some current AI sailing software is assistive and requires at least some form of supervision by a person on board, while more advanced technology can operate the ship completely independently, without the need for humans. Regardless, this new generation of autonomous vessels will make humans a more marginal part of life at sea. Because many self-driving boats are still relatively new, there is not yet enough evidence to prove that the technology powering these ships is as capable as human navigators. Still, these vehicles could not only make crossing the world’s waterways easier, they could do so with a smaller carbon footprint than manned boats.
“The computer can optimize for fuel economy and integrate a lot of different inputs about how fast they need to move through the water to get to their destination on time, what the weather conditions are, how the vessel is performing, [and] how motors work,” Trevor Vieweg, chief technology officer at Sea Machines Robotics, a startup designing self-driving boats, told Recode. “Using these same technologies, we can reduce carbon emissions – and overall fuel burn.”
For independent navigation, an autonomous ship typically needs a wide range of sensors, including cameras and radars, as well as data from other sources, such as GPS. These sensors are placed around the vessel and help the vessel plan its route and sense nearby obstacles, such as, for example, a floating log or piece of iceberg. As with self-driving cars, autonomous ships can be classified into several levels based on how well their technology can operate without human assistance. The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that regulates shipping, has proposed a spectrum of autonomy starting with Level 1 ships, which would managed by people but it could allow AI to make some unsupervised decisions and increase sophistication to level 4 ships that could sail completely independently, without the need for human involvement or decision-making.
Proponents say these vessels are less susceptible to human error — ships and boats accidents are to some extent often — and could allow boat operators to assign workers to other tasks where they can be more productive. Artificial intelligence could also pilot ships more efficiently, and make better calculations about routes and speeds. It is hoped that by saving time and, perhaps most importantly, fuel, ocean-going vessels can reduce energy consumption, which remains significant contributes to climate change. In the absence of full autonomy, some experts even have suggested that software could allow people to control boats remotely, which would have several advantages. For example, remote controlled ships would reduce risk the spread of disease through international cargo transport, which is a concern everywhere the Covid-19 pandemic.
Right now, ships with autonomous capabilities represent a small fraction of the many vessels operating today. But in the future, self-driving boats could make all kinds of water-based activities more convenient. For example, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, which is supported in part by IBM, is designed to study ocean health, record the sounds of marine life and take samples of microplastics. The boat does not include a deck, bathrooms or beds, and much of its space is occupied by its technology, such as computers, batteries and motors.
“Not having people on board frees up/eliminates the space they occupy and the supplies necessary to maintain a human presence, as well as the strength the ship needs to carry the weight it entails,” said Ayse Atauz Phaneuf, president of ProMara, a marine research organization that worked on the project. “Unmanned vehicles like the Mayflower Autonomous Project will be able to spend significantly longer at sea, accessing significant but remote parts of the ocean.”
Phaneuf told Recode that the vehicle, and others like it, could eventually make ocean exploration expeditions much cheaper to launch. In addition to making it easier to study the oceans, autonomous ships could also make it easier to transport cargo. In Japan, partnerships between non-profits and freight companies successfully displayed earlier this year that autonomous container ships could travel between ports across the country. The demonstration was supposed to prove it these vehicles it could eventually help shrink the shipping industry the need for workersespecially when Japan is facing population aging. There are also organizations like one sea, which brought together shipping and AI companies to promote autonomous ocean transportation and advance the technology involved.
There are also those environmental benefits. HD Hyundai’s navigation technology works by using artificial intelligence to determine the ship’s routes and speeds, and the software also takes into account the height of nearby waves and the behavior of neighboring vessels. The company says that by using this AI, Prism Courage – a commercial tanker that traveled through the Panama Canal – reinforced its fuel efficiency by about 7 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 5 percent. While that may not sound like much, those savings could add up quickly.
Autonomous ships face headwinds. One industry expert we spoke with said smaller boats, such as research vessels and ferries, are more likely to incorporate autonomous technology than the large container ships that make up the bulk of the world’s cargo transport. Some critics, including the CEO of Maersk, argue that the savings that could come from autonomous software may not be enough to encourage large shipping companies to invest in the technology, especially since many ocean carriers don’t employ particularly large crews at all (a typical cargo ship could to have only 20 workers). Another concern is that autonomous software could make these ships more vulnerable to cyber attacks. non-autonomous shipping operations they are already hacked.
And finally, there is the extremely complicated issue of international maritime law, which may not be ready for the arrival of artificial intelligence.
“How do we deal with the issue of liability when an autonomous system, although properly designed and maintained, appears unpredictable?” Melis Ozdell, director of University College London’s Center for Commercial Law, told Recode. Of course, there are many ways that autonomous vessels could threaten life at sea, whether it’s the possibility of a robo-boat crashing into a cruise ship full of tourists, or the uncertain fate of pirates who might capture a ship, only to find that it is actually remote controlled.
AI ships have already shown they can work, at least some of the time, although the technology powering these ships is still developing and may take years to fully fly. Still, all signs point to these next-generation ships having advantages. Ultimately, sailing might seem less like weeks at sea and a little more like overseeing a ship from the comfort of an office, conveniently located on land.
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