Autonomous boats are hitting the high seas

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The autonomous ship Mayflower finally reached the coast of Nova Scotia last month, marking the end of its long voyage across the Atlantic. While the modern Mayflower is far from the first ship to make this voyage, this small robotic ship is the largest it has ever sailed with no human intelligence on board. Some technique despite the hiccup, his voyage is the latest proof that the future of the high seas could be autonomous.

Gradually, self-propelled ships are becoming a reality. In Norway, a self-powered battery-powered container ship is transporting fertilizer between a factory and a local port and, pending a satisfactory test, could be fully certified in the next two years. A commercial tanker truck called Prism Courage recently traveled from Texas, through the Panama Canal, to South Korea, guided by the software of Avikus, a subsidiary of HD Hyundai, a shipbuilding operation that split from the car group. There are even some ships designed to transport humans that can now operate on their own: a standalone water taxi created by the artificial intelligence startup Buffalo Automation was ready to transport people across the Tennessee River to downtown Knoxville. , at least from April.

Not all robots are the same. Some current artificial intelligence navigation programs are supportive and require at least some kind of control by a person on board, while the most advanced technology can operate a ship completely independently, without the need for human beings. In any case, this new generation of autonomous boats makes people a more marginal part of life at sea. Because many self-propelled ships are still relatively new, there is still not enough evidence to show that the technology that drives these ships is as capable as human navigators. However, these vehicles could not only facilitate the passage of the world’s waterways, but could also do so with a smaller carbon footprint than manned ships.

“A computer can be optimizing to save fuel and integrate many different inputs on how quickly they have to move through the water to get to their destination in time, what the weather conditions are like, how the boat works, [and] how engines work, “Trevor Vieweg, chief technology officer of Sea Machines Robotics, a startup that designs self-propelled ships, told Recode.” With these same technologies, we can reduce carbon emissions and overall fuel burning. ” .

To navigate independently, a stand-alone ship typically needs a variety of sensors, including cameras and radars, as well as data from other sources, such as GPS. These sensors are placed around the ship and help a ship plan its route and detect nearby obstacles, such as a floating log or a piece of iceberg. As with autonomous cars, autonomous ships can be classified into several levels based on the performance of their technology without human help. The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that regulates maritime transport, has proposed a spectrum of autonomy that begins with level 1 ships, which would be operated by humans, but which could allow AI to take some unsupervised decisions, and increasing their sophistication to level 4 ships. which could sail completely independently, without the need for human involvement or decision making.

Proponents say these ships are less susceptible to human error (ship and boat accidents are somewhat common) and could allow ship operators to assign workers to other tasks where they can be more productive. Artificial intelligence could also navigate 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 ships can reduce their energy consumption, which remains a major contributor to climate change. In the absence of total autonomy, some experts have even suggested that the software could allow humans to steer ships remotely, which would have several advantages. For example, remotely piloted ships would reduce the risk of spreading the disease through international cargo transportation, which has been a concern during the Covid-19 pandemic.

At present, ships with autonomous capabilities represent a small fraction of the many ships currently operating. But in the future, self-propelled boats could make all kinds of water activities more convenient. For example, the autonomous ship Mayflower, which had the support of IBM, was designed to study the health of the ocean, record audio of marine life and take microplastic samples. The ship does not include deck, baths or bunk beds, and much of the interior space is occupied by its technology, such as its on-board computers, batteries and engines.

“Not having humans on board frees / eliminates the space occupied by them and the supplies needed to maintain the human presence, as well as the power the ship needs to carry the weight it carries,” said Ayse 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 considerably longer time at sea, accessing important but distant parts of the ocean.”

Phaneuf told Recode that the vehicle, and others like it, could eventually make ocean research expeditions much less expensive to launch. In addition to facilitating the study of the ocean, autonomous ships could also facilitate the transportation of goods. In Japan, a partnership between a non-profit organization and freight companies successfully demonstrated earlier this year that autonomous container vessels could travel between ports across the country. The demonstration was intended to show that these vehicles could help reduce the need for workers in the shipping industry, especially when Japan is facing an aging population. There are also organizations like One Sea, which has brought together shipping and AI companies to promote autonomous ocean transportation and advance the technology involved.

There are also these environmental benefits. Hyundai HD navigation technology works by using artificial intelligence to determine the routes and speeds of a ship, and the software also takes into account the height of nearby waves and the behavior of neighboring ships. The company says that using this AI, the Prism Courage —The commercial tanker that traveled through the Panama Canal — increased its fuel efficiency by 7 percent and reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent. While this may not sound like much, these savings could increase rapidly.

Self-propelled boats face headwinds. An industry expert we spoke to said that smaller ships, such as study ships and ferries, are more likely to incorporate autonomous technology than large container ships that make up the bulk of the world’s freight transport. . Some critics, including the CEO of Maersk, have argued that the savings that could come from standalone software may not be enough to encourage large shipping companies to invest in technology, especially because many ocean carriers do not use especially large crews in the first place ( a typical cargo ship could have only 20 workers on board). Another concern is that standalone software could make these ships more vulnerable to cyberattacks, even though non-standalone shipping operations have already been hacked.

And finally, there is also the extremely complicated issue of international maritime law, which may not be ready for the advent of artificial intelligence.

“How should we approach the issue of liability in which an autonomous system, even if properly designed and maintained, acts in unpredictable ways?” Melis Ozdel, director of the Center for Business Law at the University of London, told Recode. Of course, there are many ways in which autonomous ships could change lives at sea, either the possibility of a robot crashing into a cruise ship full of tourists or the uncertain fate of pirates who could capture a ship, only to discover which is actually remotely controlled.

AI ships have already shown that they can operate, at least sometimes, even though the technology that drives these ships is still evolving and may take years to take off completely. However, all indications are that these new generation ships do have advantages. Finally, navigation might seem a little less like weeks at sea and a little more like controlling a ship from the comfort of an office, conveniently located on land.

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