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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.

Autonomous hotbeds

According to the United Nations, 90% of the world’s trade is carried by sea and that accounts for well over 11 billion tons of products. Global insurer Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty states that 75%-95% of shipping accidents are caused by human error, which accounted for $1.6 billion in losses between 2011 and 2016 alone.

But freighters and car carriers are only a part of the target market for autonomy. Cruise ships and vessels involved with wind farming, aquaculture, surveillance, spill response, dredging, oil and gas exploration, research, surveying and security are also candidates. "Most of our target market right now is workboats, patrol craft, SAR (Search and Rescue) operations, fire and first responders, pilot boats, military vessels and tugs,” says Smith. That’s a lot but there are still only about 20 million or so vessels worldwide and that’s less than 10% of the number of cars in the US alone, so automobiles get the lion’s share of the public’s attention.

Bits of vessel autonomy are popping up everywhere with a significant concentration in Scandinavian countries, specifically in Finland and Norway where there are political and financial incentives to develop the technology. That these two countries have miles of shoreline and thousands of islands, and that their people have been seafarers for centuries doesn’t hurt either.

One Norwegian expert, Ornulf Jan Rodseth, senior scientist at SINTEF Ocean, feels that autonomy is within two years of a turning point, within five years of being in widespread use, and within a decade of being fairly common.

The players are a mixed bag of startups and large firms with deep pockets like Rolls Royce that successfully demonstrated an autonomous ferry in the archipelago south of Turku, Finland. Meanwhile, US company Autonomous Marine Systems, developed unmanned sailing survey drones called Datamarans to collect ocean data for the offshore energy sector.

Michael Johnson launched Sea Machines after the company he worked for, Crowley Maritime, won the contract to salvage the ill-fated Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that became the face of a fatal tragedy and the most expensive salvage of all time. Today, Sea Machines markets a control system, the SM 300, that serves level 3 operator-in-the-loop autonomy, which is a degree of artificial intelligence that still requires human interaction. Johnson wants to make sure that a maritime disaster of the Concordia’s proportions doesn’t happen ever again.

Another name in this space is Metal Shark that offers boat models with Sharktech, their answer to autonomous control and collision avoidance. You can switch between fully remote control and computer-assisted operation modes. Sharktech’s ASView system provides fully remote operation of navigation and safety lighting, hailers, sirens and pumps, as well as specialized equipment, including fire pumps, hydrographic survey and acoustic equipment, oceanographic or meteorological monitoring and a full range of cameras.

Most of the work is currently focused on coastal or inshore vessels operating no more than a half-mile offshore, although in 2016 a small, home-built, solar-powered drone boat was the first to successfully cross an ocean from California to Hawaii using GPS and satellite connectivity.


There are many benefits of autonomous vessels and starting with safety. Smith says, "It provides on-watch redundancy by a system that doesn’t get tired and isn’t prone to distractions or making mistakes. Autonomous systems increase predictability, productivity and safety, and protect people and assets.”

Safety of personnel is a significant benefit. Metal Shark’s target is law enforcement, military, fire and other sectors that may have dangerous or endurance missions or operations unsuitable for human crew.

However, most of these parties have another motivator—money. Automation promises to save fuel, improve safety, reduce crew needs and possibly increase tonnage. If ships can be completely unmanned (more on the likelihood of this later), then designers can do away with the galley, living quarters, sick bay, climate control and other crew life-support systems and that means more room for cargo.

Cost saving may also come from bridge design. A new layout may be a series of black boxes with maybe just one display for troubleshooting and maintenance. "I expect to see a completely new RCC (Remote Control Center). Perhaps more similar to what you see in air traffic control,” says Rodseth. "But if there is an RCC [on a manned ship], it also makes sense to let operators handle some of the more complex situations so that we don’t need an automation system that can handle absolutely all issues. This is probably key to making cost-effective autonomous ship systems, a combination of remote control/supervision and onboard automation [interfaced with humans].”

Rodseth also sees savings in the deployment of multiple smaller craft rather than a few large ones, which turns today’s argument for the economies of scale in large ships. Fleets of smaller craft would be more agile, have higher frequency of delivery, could work at differentiated speeds, call at smaller inland ports and generally be more versatile.

On the subject of money, however, we must address the fact that we’re still early in the lifecycle of advanced autonomy and we’re only dealing with early adopters, which makes costs prohibitive for most of the market, especially for recreational marine. "Today the cost is probably much too high,” says Rodseth. "This is mostly because the projects are one-offs with a lack of standardized components and technology and very high costs in test and verification.”

Even Sea Machines systems aren’t off the shelf. They have to be custom installed, which, depending on the complexity of the vessel, can be done in as little as a week. It improves operational capability, situational awareness, object identification and tracking capabilities. Pricing is tiered but customers hope to offset these early adopter premiums with considerably lower operational costs, reduced risk of at-sea incidents and possibly lower insurance rates in the long term.

Next week: What about recreational boats and hurdles to overcome?

About the author

Zuzana Prochazka is a freelance writer and photographer who contributes regularly to over a dozen sail and power boating magazines and Web publications. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and captained flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as an international presenter on charter destinations and technical topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards Committee for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which judges innovative boats and gear, and Executive Director of Boating Writers International.

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