Autonomous boats land on the high seas

The autonomous ship Mayflower has finally arrived on the coast of Nova Scotia last month, marking the end of its long crossing of the Atlantic. While the modern Mayflower is far from the first ship to make this journey, this small robotic boat is the largest to have ever sailed using artificial intelligence without a human on board. Some technical hiccups Nevertheless, his trip is the latest proof that the future of the high seas could be self-sustaining.

Slowly, autonomous ships are becoming a reality. In Norway, an autonomous body battery-powered container ship shuttles 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 Courage Prism recently traveled from Texas, through the Panama Canal, to South Korea, guided by software of Avikus, a subsidiary of HD Hyundai, a shipbuilding company derived from the automotive group. There are even boats meant to transport humans that can now operate on their own: an autonomous water taxi created by artificial intelligence startup Buffalo Automation was ready to transport people on the Tennessee River in downtown Knoxville, at least since April.

Not all robo-boats are created equal. Some current AI navigation software is assistive and requires at least some form of supervision by someone on board, while more advanced technology can operate a vessel entirely independently, without having to need humans. Either way, this new generation of autonomous vessels should make people a more marginal part of life at sea. Since many autonomous 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. Yet these vehicles could not only make it easier to navigate the world’s waterways, but also do so with a lower carbon footprint than manned boats.

“A computer can optimize fuel economy and incorporate many different inputs regarding how fast it needs to move through the water to reach its destination on time, weather conditions, vessel operation, [and] how the motors work,” Trevor Vieweg, chief technology officer at Sea Machines Robotics, a startup that designs autonomous boat technology, told Recode. “By using these same technologies, we can reduce carbon emissions – and fuel consumption in general.”

To navigate autonomously, 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 positioned around the vessel and help a vessel plan its course and detect nearby obstacles, such as, for example, a floating log or a piece of iceberg. As with self-driving cars, self-driving ships can be categorized into several tiers based on how well their technology performs without human assistance. The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that regulates shipping, has proposed a range of autonomy starting with Tier 1 ships, which would be powered by humans but could enable AI to make unsupervised decisions and increase the sophistication of Tier 4 ships that could navigate completely independently, with no human involvement or decision making required.

Advocates say these ships are less susceptible to human error – ship and boat accidents are somewhat common — and could allow boat operators to reassign workers to other tasks where they can be more productive. Artificial intelligence could also steer ships more efficiently, and 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 remains a significant contributor to climate change. In the absence of complete autonomy, some experts have even suggested this software could allow humans to steer boats remotely, which would have several advantages. For example, remote-controlled ships would be reduce the risk to spread diseases through the international transport of goods, which has been a worry through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Currently, ships with autonomous capabilities represent only a tiny fraction of the many ships in service today. But in the future, autonomous ships could make all kinds of water-based activities more convenient. For example, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, which was supported in part by IBM, was designed to study the health of the ocean, record audio from marine life, and collect microplastic samples. The boat does not include a deck, bathrooms or berths, and much of the space inside is taken up by its technology, such as its on-board computers, batteries and motors.

“Not having humans on board frees up/eliminates the space they take up and the supplies needed to maintain human presence, as well as the power the ship needs to support the weight that entails,” Ayse said. Atauz Phaneuf, president of ProMare, the marine research organization that worked on the project. “Unmanned vehicles such as the Mayflower Autonomous Project will be able to spend much longer at sea, accessing important but remote parts of the ocean.”

Phaneuf told Recode that the vehicle, and others like it, could eventually make ocean research expeditions much cheaper to launch. In addition to making it easier to study the ocean, autonomous ships could also make it easier to transport goods. In Japan, a partnership between an association and freight transport companies successfully shown earlier this year that autonomous container ships could travel between ports across the country. The demonstration aimed to prove that these vehicles could possibly help to reduce expenses for the shipping industry need workersespecially since Japan is facing a Aging of the population. There are also organizations like A sea, which brought together shipping and AI companies to promote autonomous shipping and advance the technology involved.

There are also these environmental benefits. HD Hyundai’s navigation technology works by using artificial intelligence to determine a vessel’s routes and speeds, and the software also takes into account nearby wave heights and the behavior of neighboring vessels. The company claims that by using this AI, the Courage Prism — the commercial tanker that passed through the Panama Canal — boosted its energy efficiency by around 7% and reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by 5%. While that may not seem like much, those savings could add up quickly.

Autonomous ships face headwinds. An industry expert we spoke to said that smaller vessels, such as survey vessels and ferries, are more likely to incorporate autonomous technology than the large container ships that make up the bulk of transporting goods in the world. Some critics, including the CEO of Maersk, argued that the savings that could come from stand-alone software might not be enough to induce major shipping companies to invest in the technology, especially since many shipping carriers do not use particularly large crews in first place (a typical freighter might have only 20 workers on board). Another concern is that autonomous software could make these ships more vulnerable to cyberattacks, although non-autonomous maritime operations have already been hacked.

And finally, there is also the extremely complicated matter of international maritime law, which is perhaps not prepared for the arrival of artificial intelligence.

“How should we deal with the question of liability when an autonomous system, although properly designed and maintained, acts in an unpredictable way? Melis Ozdel, director of University College London Center for Commercial Law, told Recode. Of course, there are many ways in which autonomous ships could disrupt life at sea, whether it’s the possibility of a robot boat crashing into a cruise full of tourists, or the uncertain fate of pirates. who might capture a ship, only to discover that it is in fact Remote Controlled.

AI ships have already shown that they can work, at least sometimes, though the technology that powers these ships is still under development and could take years to fully take off. Still, all signs point to these next-generation boats having benefits. Eventually, navigation might feel a little less like weeks at sea and a little more like watching a ship from the comfort of an office, conveniently located ashore.

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