Autonomous boats go to the open sea

The Mayflower autonomous ship has finally arrived off the coast of Nova Scotia. last month, marking the end of his long journey across the Atlantic. While the modern Mayflower is far from the first ship to make such a voyage, this small robotic boat is the largest ever to make this artificially intelligent voyage without humans on board. A little technical hiccups however, his journey is the latest evidence that the future of the high seas could be autonomous.

Gradually, self-driving ships are becoming a reality. In Norway, autonomous battery powered container ship transports fertilizer between the plant and the local port and, if tested successfully, could be fully certified within the next two years. commercial tanker named in Prism Courage recently traveled from Texas via the Panama Canal to South Korea, controlled by software from Avikus, a subsidiary of HD Hyundai, a shipbuilding company that has been separated from the automotive group. There are even a few boats designed to carry people that can now operate on their own: A self-driving water taxi built by AI startup Buffalo Automation was ready to ferry people across the Tennessee River in downtown Knoxville. at least in April.

Not all robotic boats are the same. Some modern AI sailing software is assistive and requires at least some form of human supervision on board, while more advanced technology can operate the ship completely independently without any human assistance. However, this new generation of autonomous ships should make humans a more marginalized part of life at sea. Because many self-driving boats are still relatively new, there isn’t enough evidence yet that the technology that powers these ships is as efficient as human navigators. However, these vehicles can not only make it easier to cross the world’s waterways, but do so with a smaller carbon footprint than crewed boats.

“The computer can optimize fuel economy and integrate many different inputs about how fast they need to move through the water to get to their destination on time, what weather conditions, how the ship is performing, [and] how motors work,” Trevor Wueg, CTO of Sea Machines Robotics, a startup developing self-driving boats, told Recode. “Using the same technologies, we can reduce carbon emissions and overall fuel consumption.”

To navigate independently, an autonomous boat typically requires a wide range of sensors, including cameras and radar, as well as data from other sources such as GPS. These sensors are located around the vessel and help the vessel plan its route and detect nearby obstacles such as a floating log or piece of iceberg. Like self-driving cars, autonomous ships can be divided into several levels based on how well their technology can work without human assistance. The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that regulates shipping, has proposed a range of autonomy, starting with Tier 1 vessels that will run by people but can allow the AI ​​to make some unsupervised decisions and increase the complexity of the ships to level 4, which can sail completely independently without human input or decision making.

Proponents say these ships are less prone to human error – ship and boat. accidents are somewhat general — and can allow boat operators to assign workers to other tasks where they can be more productive. Artificial intelligence can also control ships more effective, and better calculate routes and speeds. It is hoped that by saving time and, perhaps most importantly, fuel, ocean-going ships can reduce energy consumption, which continues to be a significant contributor to climate change. In the absence of full autonomy, some experts even proposed this software could allow people to control boats remotely, which would have several advantages. For example, unmanned ships reduce the risk spread of disease through international freight transport, which is anxiety through pandemic Covid-19.

Vessels with autonomous capabilities currently represent a tiny fraction of the many vessels in operation today. But in the future, self-driving ships could make all activities on the water more convenient. For example, the autonomous ship Mayflower, which was partly supported by IBM, was designed to study the state of the ocean, record audio of marine life, and take samples of microplastics. The boat has no deck, bathrooms or berths and much of the interior space is taken up by technology such as on-board computers, batteries and motors.

“Having no people on board frees up/eliminates the space they take up and the supplies needed to support a human presence, as well as the power a ship needs to carry the associated weight,” said Ayse Atauz Faneuf, president of ProMare, a marine research organization that worked on the project. “Unmanned vehicles, such as the autonomous Mayflower project, will be able to spend significantly more time at sea, gaining access to large but remote parts of the ocean.”

Fanef told Recode that the craft, and others like it, could eventually make launching ocean exploration expeditions a lot cheaper. In addition to making it easier to explore the ocean, autonomous ships could also make it more convenient to carry cargo. In Japan, partnerships between non-profit and freight transport companies successfully showed Earlier this year, autonomous container ships were able to ply between ports across the country. The demonstration was to prove that these cars can ultimately help cut costs for the shipping industry need for workersespecially since Japan is facing aging population. There are also organizations such as one sea, which brought together shipping companies and artificial intelligence companies to promote autonomous shipping and develop related technologies.

There are also environmental benefits. Hyundai’s HD navigation technology uses artificial intelligence to determine the ship’s route and speed, while the software also takes into account the height of nearby waves and the behavior of nearby ships. The company says that with this AI, Prism Courage — a commercial tanker that passed through the Panama Canal — reinforced fuel efficiency by about 7 percent and greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 5 percent. While it may not sound like much, those savings can add up quickly.

Autonomous ships face headwinds. One industry expert we spoke to said that small vessels such as research vessels and ferries are more likely to use autonomous technology than the large container ships that make up the bulk of the world’s freight traffic. Some critics including the CEO of Maersk, have argued that the savings that can be gained from offline software may not be enough to encourage major shipping companies to invest in the technology, especially since many ocean carriers do not initially employ particularly large crews (a typical freighter may have only 20 workers on board). Another concern is that offline software could make these ships more vulnerable to cyberattacks. non-autonomous shipping operations already hacked.

And finally, the extremely difficult issue of international maritime law, which may not be prepared for the advent of artificial intelligence.

“How are we supposed to deal with the issue of liability when an autonomous system, though properly designed and maintained, acts unpredictably?” This was reported to Recode by Melis Ozdel, Director of the Center for Commercial Law at University College London. Of course, there are many ways that autonomous ships could change life at sea, whether it’s the possibility of a robotic boat crashing into a cruise full of tourists, or the uncertain fate of pirates who might hijack a ship only to discover it’s for real. actually controlled remotely.

Artificial intelligence ships have already shown that they can work, at least sometimes, although the technology that powers these ships is still being developed and could take years to fully take off. However, all indications are that there are advantages to these next-generation boats. After all, sailing might not feel like a few weeks at sea, but a bit more like watching a ship from the comfort of an office conveniently located on land.

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