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 autonomous 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 and emblazoned with the words "UNMANNED VESSEL" across its aluminum hull.

"We're in full autonomy now," said Jeff Gawrys, 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.

DISTRACTED SEAFARING

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

Sea Machines is based out of an East Boston shipyard and 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 that 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, including assisting maritime crews, but not replacing them.

Johnson, a marine engineer whose previous job took him to the Italian coast to help salvage the sunken cruise ship Costa Concordia, 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.

GLOBAL RACE

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 ship. 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.

CARS VS. BOATS

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

But boat navigation could be much easier than car navigation, said Carlo Ratti, an MIT professor 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, and 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, for instance, start as a fleet of passenger or delivery boats, then transform into an on-demand floating bridge to accommodate a surge of pedestrians.

Since 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.

ARMCHAIR CAPTAINS

Researchers have already begun to design merchant ships that 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, 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.

CHANGING RULES OF THE SEA

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." But The International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping, has begun a 2-year review of the safety, security and environmental implications of autonomous ships.

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


COMMENTS (4)
  • Ryderm-dav
    9/25/2017 - 08:55 a.m.

    In the passage "Self driving boats", I agree that self driving boats would be good and easier to transport goods. My first reason I think this is because it would be less dangerous than self driving cars because the ocean is way bigger and open than the road. Another reason is that self driving boats don't have to worry about pedestrians and bikers or traffic which would be way easier to navigate. My last reason is that armchair captains in a remote center could control several ships at a time. These reasons support the claim that self driving boats would be easier to transport goods and navigate.

  • jackiek-orv
    9/25/2017 - 11:58 a.m.

    why would someone want a self driving boat?

  • Kevinm-dav2
    9/25/2017 - 01:50 p.m.

    In the story "Self Driving Boats" I agree that self driving boats can enhance safety in many ways. My first reason why I is that the boat drives for you and it is easier while if you're driving you could be distracted. Another reason how it would be easier is that armchair captains can now work easier. It is tricky for a armchair captain, because they have to do so many things. In the passage it says, "armchair captains in a remote operation center could be monitoring several ships at a time, sitting in a room with 360-degree virtual reality view" Now it is easier for a armchair captain because the self driving boats can move by not relying on a human. My final reason how it is safer is that it is easier to transfer cargo, now cargo can be easily transferd over the seas and humans don't have to control where it goes. These are my reasons how self driving boats are more enhance in safety.

  • cadeb-lew1
    9/29/2017 - 12:21 p.m.

    I think these self-controlled cars and boats is a great idea.First of all the amount of deaths every year due to car accidents is tremendous.People are getting killed at an alarming rate. These self-controlled cars will stop many deaths.With people texting and driving.Also drivers will not get distracted by bikers or other things happening outside of the vehicle.The boats also will be much safer,instead of risking 200 peoples lives it's only about 10.Also with the armchair captain he can control many vessels at one time.You will not have to rely on a human for safe driving,the self-controlled which uses sensors will be much safer.

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