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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?”

People are another issue. The more complex the operations, the more that professional management is needed. Because high-tech systems require deeper and broader expertise, multiple lower level employees may need to be replaced by (presumably fewer) highly skilled and more expensive administrators. (Check out Sea Machine’s advanced situational awareness display at right. The actual artificial intelligence-powered system is installed aboard a containership.)
Thiru Vikram, CEO of New York-based artificial intelligence startup Buffalo Automation,  zeros in on another commonly voiced problem. "The marine industry is fragmented and there’s a lack of protocol standardization,” he says. "We work with cameras, autopilots, laser and sensors and marine electronics OEMs aren’t known for open technology—it’s siloed.”

Energy and battery capacity are other obstacles. There are many more variables that come into play in docking a boat than parking a car, namely current, wind, waves, etc. It takes gigabytes of data operating at very high network speeds with powerful processors to manage the auto situation—now apply that to a boat. Nigel Calder, who knows a thing or two about electrical power and the generation of it, notes, "It’s going to take a ton of sensors and computing power to collect and process data to be truly autonomous. This in turn is going to take a substantial amount of energy and if the engine-driven alternators or generators go down, or the batteries die, it’s not as if the boat can pull over to the side of the road, so it will be a while before we eliminate the human operator altogether.”

There are logistical headaches too. A lot of vessel maintenance takes place during transit by onboard crew. If that maintenance has to be done when the vessel docks, the ship must be taken offline for the duration and that’s expensive.

Then there are the legal implications. Disruptive technology necessitates the development of new laws, a revamped set of rules to play by and typically, regulation trails technology. Although autonomous ships may reduce human error, they introduce other types of risk. There are numerous points of failure with vessel autonomy, some of which include risk of collision, piracy, cybersecurity, and the environmental impact of accidents. Changes to maritime regulations don’t move at lightning speed. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Comité Maritime International (CMI) are doing preliminary work on safety for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) and potential changes to international maritime law. However, by definition, they are slow and methodical bodies that must consider a range of options. "The technology is being deployed faster than the regulations can keep up,” adds Smith. "But demand for these systems is high so there is a lot of pressure to make progress on behalf of the industry.”

What happens if the Coast Guard boards a boat and there’s no one there to meet them? What happens if it’s a pirate? How do you block hackers? Who pays for cleanup if GPS gets spoofed and the ship runs into a reef, a dock or another vessel? "Think about an LNG tanker coming into Los Angeles Harbor,” says Matt Wood, National Sales Manager for Furuno USA. "It’s a potential bomb and a great target for terrorism. The whole system has a lot of working parts so thinking through all the what ifs by the regulatory bodies is a slow process by design.”

Commander David Dubay, a military professor of international law, penned a piece on why vessels will never be completely free of humans. He wrote, "The professional merchant mariners who operate ships today are the crucial on-scene decision makers, repairmen and physical security providers who make commercial shipping secure, efficient and inexpensive.”
Of course, we’ve already seen a dramatic decrease in essential personnel aboard. Ships that used to carry 50 crew may be down to 15 now. It’s likely that with semi-autonomy, that number will come down to fewer than five soon.

Autonomy on recreational craft

In many ways, recreational marine electronics systems function with semi-autonomy today. "We’re already there,” says Wood, and he’s right if "semi-autonomy” is defined as reducing workload and improving decision-making for the captain or crew.

Much progress has been made in monitoring electrical and mechanical systems, assisting in driving and docking, and improving communications on and off the vessel. Advances have been significant in cellular and satellite communications, thermal and regular camera imaging, dynamic positioning systems, sensors, and electromechanical actuators. Think of all the functionality that has found its way into the navigation suite and the MFD in the past five years. Now add digital switching like C-Zone and EmpirBus where you can turn systems on and off via your smart device. Then add remote diagnostics capabilities for engines and also electronics software downloads that can be done remotely, and suddenly it seems like the future is here.

To take the angst out of the scariest part of boating, Volvo Penta has been actively working on a self-docking system as has Raymarine. "Our Docksense products play in the autonomous sensor space,” says Raymarine’s Jim McGowan. "The 3D stereo vision cameras we manufacture are very effective at sensing objects in close proximity and the data stream they create can be used to actively maneuver a vessel.”

Another Raymarine product engaged in autonomous tech is their radar SDK, which allows systems integrators to use their Quantum CHIRP technology as a sensor in a larger system. The SDK allows access to all of the radar’s features and settings, so it can serve as a sensor feeding into a larger network that can control a vessel underway.

Sea Ray’s SLX-R 400e wowed the crowds at the Consumer Electronics Show this year as they demonstrated all the advanced technologies packed into a 40-foot sport boat. The boat showcased what we now consider to be standard equipment, including joystick piloting for outboards, a touchscreen interface on Simrad’s NSO evo3 displays, and complete monitoring and control of the power management system that was a collaboration between Mastervolt, Sea Ray and Navico. This is not exactly autonomy, but all these pieces are building blocks of an umbrella system that’s well on its way there.

Today you can turn on your deck lights, start the genset and turn down the A/C as you’re still walking down the dock to the boat. On the offshore communications side, companies like Intellian, KVH and SeaTel are up- and down-loading large volumes of data to and from ships and yachts so satellite data transmission has become robust enough to handle some autonomy aspects for offshore uses.

Yes, the elements of autonomy are already in place but the true secret sauce for the next leap will be in the integration of components via underlying artificial intelligence that can learn and improve vessel performance and the user experience. That’s where most of the major electronics manufacturers as well as a few peripheral players are focused now and the advances are coming at us faster every day.

Will recreational boats become unmanned? No—since we are on boats to presumably recreate and therefore we choose to take an active part. Will they become autonomous? To some degree, they already are and that has reduced the pressure on captains of megayachts and built confidence in skippers of much smaller craft. Personally, I delight in driving a boat and I take docking as a sign of hopefully ever-growing skill. But if the boat will monitor and manage onboard power systems, diagnose potential mechanical issues and help me avoid upcoming shallows, then I’m all in with semi-autonomy.

Plug and play

Many electronics dealers and installers are already working with systems that partially or fully fall into the autonomous space whether they’re servicing workboats, megayachts or even recreational fishing boats. Most electronics today are composed of multiple systems that are networked via an Ethernet or NMEA 2000 backbone.

"We have a trusted network of installers that can retrofit vessels without much additional training,” adds Smith. "It’s fairly plug-and-play if an installer already has the basics in connectivity and communications as well as owning the relationship with the customer,” she says. "We’d urge interested dealers/installers to focus on retrofits because there’s a great opportunity to capitalize on existing vessels.”

Vikram echoes her thoughts. "We consider qualified installers to be ‘normal contractors’ who know their point-to-point connectivity,” he says. "We focus on retrofits and we train them how to install our AutoMate product so basic skills are fine.”

Thoughts on the future

So, is vessel autonomy on the horizon? Yes and no. The parts that help automate decision-making, facilitate vessel maneuvering and reduce human workload are well on their way. Those are the pieces where electronics shops can find the most opportunities for installation, service and management. And if elements are expected to be in common use in a decade, the time to prepare for an inevitable shift in necessary skills is now.

But for the truly Bondesque vision of futuristic unmanned vessels plying the high seas, the horizon may have to be nudged out a bit farther and that’s too far out for us to speculate about the details. As Wood says, "We don’t know what we don’t know yet.”

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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