Self-driving boats: The next tech transportation race
Self-driving boats: The next tech transportation race In this Aug. 15, 2017 photo, computer scientist Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik, of Sea Machines Robotics, uses a laptop to guide a boat outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and capable of autonomous navigation in Boston Harbor. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Self-driving boats: The next tech transportation race
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Self-driving cars may not hit the road in earnest for many years. But self-driving boats could be just around the pier.

Marine innovators are spurred in part by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles. They are building automated ferry boats for Amsterdam canals. These are cargo ships that can steer themselves through Norwegian fjords. Also possible are remote-controlled ships to carry containers across the Atlantic and Pacific. The first such autonomous ships could be in operation within three years.

One experimental workboat spent this summer dodging tall ships and tankers in Boston Harbor. It was outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software. It was emblazoned with the words "UNMANNED VESSEL" across its aluminum hull.

"We're in full autonomy now," said Jeff Gawrys. He is a marine technician for Boston startup Sea Machines Robotics.

The boat still needs human oversight. But some of the world's biggest maritime firms have committed to designing ships that won't need any captains or crews, at least not on board.


The ocean is "a wide open space," said Sea Machines CEO Michael Johnson.

Sea Machines is based out of an East Boston shipyard. It was once used to build powerful wooden clippers. Those were the cutting-edge sailing vessels of the 19th century. Johnson's company is hoping to spark a new era of commercial marine innovation. It could surpass the development of self-driving cars and trucks.

The startup has signed a deal with an undisclosed company. The plan is to install the "world's first autonomy system on a commercial containership," Johnson said. It will be remotely-controlled from land as it travels the North Atlantic. He also plans to sell the technology to companies doing oil spill cleanups. He plans other difficult work on the water. This work includes assisting maritime crews. But not replacing them.

Johnson is a marine engineer whose previous job took him to the Italian coast. He helped salvage the sunken cruise ship Costa Concordia. He said that deadly 2012 capsizing and other marine disasters have convinced him that "we're relying too much on old-world technology."

"Humans get distracted, humans get tired," he said.


Militaries have been working on unmanned vessels for decades. But a lot of commercial experimentation is happening in the centuries-old seaports of Scandinavia, where Rolls-Royce demonstrated a remote-controlled tugboat in Copenhagen this year. Government-sanctioned testing areas have been established in Norway's Trondheim Fjord and along Finland's western coast.

In Norway, fertilizer company Yara International is working with engineering firm Kongsberg Maritime. They plan to replace big-rig trucks with an electric-powered ships. It will connect three nearby ports. The pilot ship is scheduled to launch next year. Then shift to remote control in 2019 and go fully autonomous by 2020.

"It would remove a lot of trucks from the roads in these small communities," said Kongsberg CEO Geir Haoy.

Japanese shipping firm Nippon Yusen K.K. plans to test its first remote-controlled vessel in 2019. It is part of a wider Japanese effort to deploy hundreds of autonomous container ships by 2025. A Chinese alliance has set a goal of launching its first self-navigating cargo ship in 2021.


The key principles of self-driving cars and boats are similar. Both scan their surroundings using a variety of sensors. They feed the information into an artificial intelligence system. It outputs driving instructions to the vehicle.

But boat navigation could be much easier than car navigation, said Carlo Ratti. He is an MIT professor. He is working with Dutch universities to launch self-navigating vessels in Amsterdam next year. The city's canals, for instance, have no pedestrians or bikers cluttering the way. They are subject to strict speed limits.

Ratti's project is also looking at ways small vessels could coordinate with each other in "swarms." They could start as a fleet of passenger or delivery boats. Then they could transform into an on-demand floating bridge. This could accommodate a surge of pedestrians.

Many boats already have electronic controls. "It would be easy to make them self-navigating by simply adding a small suite of sensors and AI," Ratti said.


Researchers have already begun to design merchant ships. They will be made more efficient because they don't need room for seamen to sleep and eat. But in the near future, most of these ships will be only partly autonomous.

Armchair captains in a remote operation center could be monitoring several ships at a time. They could be sitting in a room with 360-degree virtual reality views. When the vessels are on the open seas, they might not need humans to make decisions. It's just the latest step in what has been a gradual automation of maritime tasks.

"If you go back 150 years, you had more than 200 people on a cargo vessel. Now you have between 10 and 20," said Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation for Rolls-Royce's marine business.


There are still some major challenges ahead. Uncrewed vessels might be more vulnerable to piracy or even outright theft via remote hacking of a ship's control systems. Some autonomous vessels might win public trust faster than others. Unmanned container ships filled with bananas might not raise the same concerns as oil tankers plying the waters near big cities or protected wilderness.

A decades-old international maritime safety treaty also requires that "all ships shall be sufficiently and efficiently manned." The International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping, has begun a 2-year review. They are looking at the safety, security and environmental implications of autonomous ships.

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How could self-driving boats enhance safety?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • aiyanaa-orv
    9/22/2017 - 11:22 a.m.

    I don't think I would ever ride in anything that is self driving because I would be scared that it would loose control and crash. I wonder how people even make cars to be self driving. But it would be cool to have one.

  • Loganc-dav2
    9/25/2017 - 08:58 a.m.

    I agree that self-driving boats can enhance safety for many reasons. One reason is humans don't need to be on the boat which makes humans safe because they are not out in the sea. Another reason why self-driving boats can enhance safety is self driving boats can sense anything around them all day long, unlike regular ship captains who need to eat and sleep. My final reason why self-driving boats can enhance safety is self-driving boats will not crash into things like captains sometimes do. As you can see self-driving boats can enhance safety due to my three reasons above.

  • Brooklynb-dav
    9/25/2017 - 10:47 a.m.

    I would never ride in a self diving boat that would be scary. It probably would be fun to ride in one. Also what if it crashed or something bad happened and you don't have a radio to call for help what if you were stuck in the middle of no where. That's why i would not ride in a self-driving boat

  • holdenj-orv
    9/25/2017 - 02:45 p.m.

    Self Driving Boats: so Drunk Sea Captains can't cause another Titanic.

  • ellyb-orv
    9/27/2017 - 02:27 p.m.

    I don't think self driving anything is safe. The reason I don't think its safe is because what is it malfunctions then you crash. But I see how it would also would be safe because some people do go to fast.

  • Schuylerh-eic
    9/28/2017 - 12:03 p.m.

    I used to have a boat. The boat wasen't remote control tho.

  • calliy-orv
    9/28/2017 - 02:40 p.m.

    i think they should make a self driving car and i think that they already did but i think that it's a good idea because if you're driving at night and you are super tired after work or for something like that you might just fall asleep so the car will take you to where you need to go but i think you need like a jps to hook in your car so the car will know where you're going and if you forgot to do that next time i would put a sticky note and stick it onto the steering wheel because if you forget hopefully your not tired because you might just find out what is going to happen and that's bad. i think that the self driving cars are almost in the millions in moneywise my sister needs one of those kinds of cars but shute she lives in an apartment and works at walmart but she's happy she gets money by the way she's so lonely but good at making cakes.

  • peytonm-lew
    9/29/2017 - 12:56 p.m.

    This was a very interesting paper to read. It's hard to believe that boats will be able to drive themselves. I don't think I will ever ride in a self driving boat. To many things could go wrong if a human or robot were driving but, I think that I would feel safer with a human driving.

  • ionicaj-cel
    10/02/2017 - 11:51 a.m.

    I think that this is a great idea but it does make me wonder if we're replacing "easier" and more "innovative" with lazy. This would also take away jobs. It makes me wonder if we're letting technology control us in a way.

  • ethanm-orv
    10/19/2017 - 11:30 a.m.

    i don't understand why we need all this stuff

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