Aye, aye ... Robot?
Self-driving boats: The next tech transportation race
Based out of an East Boston shipyard once used to build powerful wooden clippers, the cutting-edge sailing vessels of the 19th century, his 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 to install the “world’s first autonomy system on a commercial containership,” Johnson said this week. 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 and other difficult work on the water, aiming to assist maritime crews, not replace them.
Johnson, a marine engineer whose previous job took him to the Italian coast to help salvage the sunken cruise ship
said that deadly 2012 capsizing and other marine disasters have convinced him that “we’re relying too much on oldworld technology.”
“Humans get distracted, humans get tired,” he said. ports. The pilot ship is scheduled to launch next year, 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. — operator of the cargo ship that slammed into a U.S. Navy destroyer in a deadly June collision — plans to test its first remotecontrolled vessel in 2019, 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. 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 co-ordinate 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.
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 centre 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, vicepresident of innovation for RollsRoyce’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.” But The International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping, has begun a two-year review of the safety, security and environmental implications of autonomous ships.
A boat capable of autonomous navigation makes its way around Boston Harbor on Aug. 15. The experimental workboat spent this summer dodging tall ships and tankers, outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and emblazoned with the words “UNMANNED VESSEL” across its aluminum hull.