A new generation of unmanned ships could keep humans out of danger, and this possibility is not their only potential advantage.
With unmanned robotic ships, shippers could save money. The one normally spent on wages, keeping boats away from the coast for longer and, without wasting space on housing, trying more efficient projects with greater capacity and less pollution.
The freight forwarding market is expected to grow from today's $ 90 billion to over $ 130 billion byl 2030. But robot ship technology remains in its early stages, particularly for large ships designed to take on the open ocean, which means testing is still critical.
This year, two very different projects will be betting on automated sea travel.
Ocean Infinity, a seabed exploration company based in Austin, Texas, and Fareham, in England, pioneered the use of large reconnaissance ships aboard one fleet called Armada.
By the end of 2020 their 15 full-size commercial ships, ranging from 21 to 36 meters in length, will begin to map the underwater terrain. They will inspect underwater infrastructures, such as telecommunications and wind farm cables, as well as oil and gas pipelines.
Meanwhile the Promar (not-for-profit marine research and exploration company) and IBM are teaming up to send a fully autonomous 15-meter trimaran across the Atlantic in September.
The craft, nicknamed Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), will roughly retrace the 1620 voyage of the original Mayflower from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachussets. It will be a journey that will put an autonomous ship against potentially stormy seas.
The two tests test different degrees of autonomy. In the case of Armada, each ship will still require humans to stay nearby. In the Mayflower plan, people will not (hopefully) be needed.
Offshore maritime inspection work is currently carried out by crewed ships, ranging from small boats to vessels of almost 80 meters. They collect data using radar, sonar and optical sensors or with remote underwater vehicles (ROV).
Scout boats typically move back and forth over a predetermined area to create an image of the seabed or its geological composition.
But no crew
Ocean Infinity wants to scan these regions in the same way, but without crews. It also plans to use Armada ships in pairs or in groups instead of operating alone as normally manned reconnaissance ships do.
In this way, he says Dan Hook, managing director of the Ocean Infinity project, “we can cover the area faster and move on to the next one”.
To perform these scans, Armada ships can deploy a variety of useful channels, including submarine ROVs capable of collecting acoustic and visual data down to a depth of more than 6000 meters.
Autonomous, but not too much
The Armada will not perform these tasks alone. Sailors at shore control stations (in Hampshire County in England or Austin, Texas) will supervise ships 24/24. In that sense they will be more like remotely piloted drones than ships truly autonomous, but still with far fewer people than a fully manned ship.
The system will rely on satellite communications, data links and on-board cameras, as well as pre-programmed mission plans.
The United Nations International Maritime Organization, which is conducting its own practice exercise for future autonomous expeditions later this year, views the Armada ships as “supervised autonomous” ships instead of completely independent ones. In addition to supervision at sea, Ocean Infinity foresees that ships will require human pilots on board to enter and exit ports when the fleet departs and returns to land.
The system is ready for initial testing, with the first 10 Armada robot ships starting to visit several European and West African ports later this year, Hook says. This test also offers Ocean Infinity the opportunity to assess the level of safety required by its fleet.
To protect its communications links, the company has invested in maritime cyber security, as well as additional detection systems to monitor cyber intrusions, says Hook.
Anti pirate ships (computer and non-IT)
Although pirates are not common in European waters, Ocean Infinity has also made concessions to physical security. The ships have lockable hatches and sloping sides that make access to their deck difficult. An automated system called “ship self-awareness” makes Armada ships avoid unknown vessels. "We have a mode where the vehicle will stay away from any object", explains Hook. “So the ship can be programmed to move away from any pi activityratería. "
Mayflower, the lonely sea
In September the Mayflower, an unmanned ship powered by a combination of solar energy, diesel and sails, will leave England for Massachusetts.
"I thought we should take inspiration from the pilgrims' departure from Plymouth and talk about the next 400 years of the maritime enterprise", says Brett Phaneuf, member of the board of directors of ProMare.
This vision of the automated future of oceanic robotic ships does not depend on human controllers, he says Rob High, Chief Technology Officer of IBM Edge Computing. The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS for friends) will make its own decisions independently of human input, navigating autonomously with an artificial intelligence system developed by IBM called the AI Captain.
An artificial captain
Although the ship has satellite connectivity for most of its voyage, allowing people to check in, it will rely entirely on Captain AI when it crosses areas without communication links. The system uses on-board sensors, including radar, LIDAR and cameras, as well as a satellite-based satellite tracking program.
AI Captain uses these inputs to detect the surrounding environment and compares them with a database of over a million nautical images. It builds on this information, along with standard maritime regulations and sea conditions, to generate a risk map. This tool allows the robot captain to determine the best way to react to obstacles, weather conditions and traffic. If necessary, it can cause the boat to change course, speed or power.
Despite the underlying technology, MAS faces many obstacles on its two or three week journey.
Phaneuf acknowledges that the success of the Mayflower, and in general of the robot ships, is not 100% guaranteed. "Everyone in the project gets nervous when I'm asked this question", he jokes. “I tell them that the pilgrims who sailed from Plymouth 400 years ago were not safe either who would have made it ".