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Autonomous vessels: Coming to a boat near you, but maybe not this week . . . part 2

Autonomous vessels are nothing new. More than a decade ago the US Navy developed, tested and delivered prototypes for use in anti-submarine and mine warfare operations. More recently most of the focus has been on commercial ships. Like other technology, what begins in one sector of the market eventually seeps into others 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. Last week we discussed some basics about the technology and introduced some of the players.

By Zuzana Prochazka

Drawbacks & hurdles

Vessel autonomy isn’t a panacea for maritime woes and getting there won’t be a linear path. As with all new technologies, only a handful of early adopters will be able to afford new-builds, and costs won’t come down until a critical mass in deployment is reached. Retrofitting Sea Machines Robotics systems aboard existing vessels make autonomous technologies more accessible to marine operators who are looking to leverage the investment in their existing fleet,” says the company’s Amelia Smith.

Another issue is a lack of infrastructure. Remote control takes robust communications, redundancy in vessel systems, integrated logistics, trained personnel and a slew of new tools and command centers that don’t exist yet. For example, if docking an autonomous ship means having slips with integrated sensors and knowledgeable operators to meet it, it’ll take time to ramp up ports, and if that ship rams the dock and does damage, who’s responsible? "Cost is not only associated with the ship,” adds Ornulf Jan Rodseth, senior scientist at SINTEF Ocean. "Most of the projects also involve various forms of automation in port like mooring and cargo handling and the question is who will pick up the cost of the infrastructure needs?”