The Driverless Decade: Part III - Autonomous Ships

Photo by Rinson Chory on Unsplash

In our previous installment of the Driverless Decade, we posited that self-piloting air taxis may find faster adoption and integration into our civilization than self-driving cars. That’s because flying cars don’t have to contend with the nuisances of sharing a road, congestion and pedestrians. But seemingly even less riskier than autonomous vehicles designed to cross the skies are those engineered to cruise the seas. Self-navigating marine vessels need only learn how to maneuver across troubling waters and steer through port traffic. A.I. companies are making impressive strides in developing autonomous seafaring technology which is predicted to improve safety, increase efficiency, and relieve humans from dangerous and repetitive tasks. Between 75% and 96% of maritime accidents are caused by human error, so self-navigating ships have the potential to usher in a new era of sailing free from disaster. 

Ferries That Sail Themselves

Northern Europe is taking the lead in engineering self-navigating passenger ships and ferries, which comes as no surprise given the area’s storied maritime traditions. In 2015, Rolls-Royce and Finnish state-owned ferry operator Finferries partnered in developing autonomous shipping technologies. Three years later, the companies debuted “Falco,” a ship outfitted with cameras, sensors and A.I.-powered navigation controls. The captainless vessel is capable of sailing across predefined routes, course correcting to avoid collisions, and docking all without human help. So far, the seacraft has logged more than 400 hours on the water and continues to hone its technology. 

Also taking part in autonomous ferry development is Norwegian startup Zeabuz. The company, which spun out of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is on a mission to revitalize urban waterways through autonomous electric passenger ferries – think of them as sea-Ubers that can be ordered on demand. The small, emission-free vessels will operate  24/7 and are being marketed to Norwegian coastal communities to shuttle residents across inlets and canals.

Self-Driving Cargo Ships

While driverless passenger ferries will no doubt have an effect on human transportation, it’s really cargo where autonomous marine navigation technology will have an outsized impact. The international shipping industry is responsible for the carriage of around 90% of world trade, making it indispensable to the global economy. Cargo ships are much slower than planes or even trucks for moving freight, so their key benefit is being the lower priced option. To maintain this edge, the shipping industry consistently seeks to lower costs, and autonomous vessels that can sail with less fuel and labor could help shippers remain the low cost alternative.  

Sometime between now and 2022, Norwegian companies Yara and Kongsberg hope to commence autonomous operations of their fully electric self-driving cargo ship, YARA Birkeland. In its first outings, the vessel will travel along a short, well-defined route between 3 ports in southern Norway. The companies aim to use the vessel to reduce diesel powered truck haulage by 40,000 journeys annually. 

Japan is comprised of 430 inhabited islands so it makes perfect sense that the government has put together a research consortium of companies, agencies, and universities to collaborate on A.I.-powered self-navigation systems. The Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism announced the project which will see Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding Co. split hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs to engineer autonomous cargo ships by 2025.

Two U.S. startups have made headlines for their efforts in developing autonomous shipping systems. San Francisco-based Shone retrofits existing ships with autonomous technologies and combines A.I. with data from ship sensors to help detect and predict the movement of nearby vessels. The company is partnering with major shipping carrier CMA CGM to give their vessels an A.I. upgrade.

On the other side of the country, Boston-based Sea Machine Robotics develops industrial-grade control systems for autonomous and remote vessel control that can be integrated into seacraft.  The startup is working with shipping carrier Maersk to test its situational awareness software on one of its container ships to improve safety and navigation.

Autonomous Research Ships

It’s been said that more is known about the surface of the moon than Earth's oceans. Promare, an organization promoting marine research and exploration, is here to close this knowledge gap. The nonprofit recently announced a partnership with IBM to develop a fully autonomous ship, the Mayflower, that will travel across the Atlantic Ocean in September to mark the 400-year anniversary of its famous namesake which landed at Plymouth.  The ship will feature solar panels, diesel and wind turbines, and research pods that researchers will use to conduct experiments in the areas of maritime cybersecurity, sea mammal monitoring and ocean-borne microplastics.

And what’s going on beneath the waves? We won’t know for sure until we look, and startup Terradepth is on the case. The company, founded by two ex-Navy Seals, raised $8 million to build a fleet of autonomous deep ocean submersible vehicles for research and exploration. Terradepth will use its data collection technology to provide multispectral imaging, surveillance and monitoring/forecasting services for offshore equipment and resources.

A Market as Vast as the Seven Seas

Humans have been traversing the seas since time immemorial, but the next decade will see us step back and allow artificial intelligence to take the wheel. Ships outfitted with autonomous technology will make seafaring faster, safer and less liable to hijackings. Ocean piracy amounts to billions of dollars each year and subjects sailors to untold danger. Integrating A.I. in the next (and current) generation of seacraft has the potential to save not just boatloads money, but also human lives.