Self-driv­ing boats: The next tech trans­porta­tion race

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Matt O’Brien AP Tech­nol­ogy Writer

BOS­TON » Self-driv­ing cars may not hit the road in earnest for many years — but au­ton­o­mous boats could be just around the pier.

Spurred in part by the car in­dus­try’s race to build driver­less ve­hi­cles, marine in­no­va­tors are build­ing au­to­mated ferry boats for Am­s­ter­dam canals, cargo ships that can steer them­selves through Nor­we­gian fjords and 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, 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, sit­ting at the helm as the boat floated through a har­bor chan­nel.

“Roger that,” said com­puter sci­en­tist Mo­hamed Saad Ibn Sed­dik, as he helped to guide the ship from his lap­top on a nearby dock.

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.

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 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 Roll­sRoyce 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 on a project to re­place big-rig trucks with an elec­tric-pow­ered ship con­nect­ing three nearby 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 re­mote-con­trolled 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.

Cars vs. boats

The key prin­ci­ples of self­driv­ing 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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