The Robot Ships Are Coming … Eventually

Although the ship won’t carry passengers or cargo, the artificial intelligence and advanced autonomy that it is testing is now slowly making its way into commercial ships. From the Baltic Sea to Singapore, shipping companies are plugging in new AI-based navigation systems to take humans off the bridge, or at least make life easier if they stay on board. Like airplanes, nearly all big ships have an autopilot that navigates from point to point when there’s not much going on. But the new programs would allow ships to sail autonomously or with little control through crowded shipping lanes or at ports, as well as reacting to hazards at sea.

AI-driven tugboats and tenders are parking cargo ships, ferries that dock by themselves are moving cars and people across waterways, and soon small cargo ships will be hauling fertilizer and groceries around Scandinavian fjords with little or no crew. This maritime transformation is being led by advancements in AI and sensor technologies, as well as a general rethinking of how to move goods across the globe with fewer people to both save money and avoid the pandemic. Some ships are being retrofitted, some are being built from scratch, but it’s likely that smaller ones will be first to sea with AI at the helm.

These new seaborne systems are facing the same hurdles as autonomous vehicles—liability fears, uncertain regulations, and concerns about cybersecurity. At the same time, companies developing AI-based ships and navigation systems are seeing growing demand for their technology. Shippers want to avoid their cargo getting stranded at sea or in port because sailors have contracted the coronavirus. One marine executive said harbor pilots, the locally based navigators who steer big ships the final miles, are reluctant to board because of coronavirus risks. That is slowing down what used to be a routine procedure when massive ships enter crowded ports or treacherous river mouths.

For these commercial shippers, the near future is not a self-driving Uber, but more like a driver-assisted Tesla. They don’t expect AI to replace captains of larger ships, but to augment them.

“In the open sea, there are situations where the person is quite bored,” says Hendrik Busshoff, product manager for autonomy at Wärtsilä Voyage, a Helsinki-based maritime technology firm that is providing high-resolution radar equipment to the Mayflower project as well as several other autonomous ships.

“We may not remove the person from the ship, but we will remove them from the bridge and have them do more high-value work and call the person in when they are needed,” Busshoff says.

That kind of high-level planning by an AI-captain is being deployed today in Norway, where Kongsberg Maritime has built a 260-foot-long autonomous, zero-emissions ship called the Yara Birkeland.

When Kongsberg first began discussions with Norway-based global fertilizer giant Yara back in 2017, the plan was to build a completely unmanned vessel that could load, sail, and unload its cargo in between three Norwegian ports with no human intervention. But that changed after Kongsberg officials realized that they would have to convince Norwegian and international regulators to draft an entirely new set of rules to allow bigger ships like the Yara Birkeland to operate without a human captain on board.

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