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Autonomous vessels: Coming to a boat near you, but maybe not this week . . .

A lot of very smart people in the US and abroad have been working on automated systems on vessels for years that tie in directly with the evolution of monitoring and control equipment. Most but not all of the focus has been on commercial ships. Like other technology what starts in one part of the market eventually seeps into other sectors as well. While the article below was written for marine electronics dealers and others in the trade, it should be of interest to boaters of all stripes who wonder what the future may hold for them in terms of autonomous operation on the water.

By Zuzana Prochazka

Everyone may be talking about self-driving cars, but the vision of unmanned cargo ships and self-driving drone boats evokes images of a James Bond future that can be hard to grasp and even harder to prepare for if you’re a professional in the marine industry.

Just how much of the autonomous vessel concept is real? What kind of boats are likely to be the first targets for conversion? What are the benefits and obstacles of the technology? How will this phenomenon shape the recreational marine segment? How do dealers and installers prepare for this future? To get some answers, we need to break it down.

First, we must define what autonomy is. An autonomous ship doesn’t have to be unmanned, and a remotely controlled unmanned ship doesn’t mean it’s autonomous. There are varying degrees of autonomy—self-driving boats that have humans aboard for other operations, unmanned vessels operated remotely by humans, and ships that function completely without human interaction. That last one is outside the scope of our discussions because it’s too far out in the future even if it does ever come into being.

Thiru Vikram, CEO of New York-based artificial intelligence startup Buffalo Automation, considers the term "autonomous” to be purely academic. But since we need a point of reference, I’m sticking with the term autonomous for most levels of automated navigation and operation, in other words, for centralized command and helm control.

The autonomy we’ll discuss here has to do with both onboard computer-assisted operations as well as advanced perception and situational awareness. The big picture is to detect obstacles by bringing together numerous sources of data and then acting on that information to enhance safety and productivity. Amelia Smith, who represents Boston-based Sea Machines Robotics, notes that today’s systems are composed of cameras, electronic charts, radar, laser-based LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), GPS, AIS (Automatic Information System), autopilot control, lots of computing power and a certain amount of Artificial Intelligence that is capable of adapting or learning over time.