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Autonomous ships ahoy!

Advancements in artificial intelligence have brought autonomous ships onto the horizon

In the world where tech giants such as Google, Tesla, and Uber are eager to see driverless cars roaming on the street, the time is close when autonomous ships would dominate oceans.

After conquering land and air, autonomous vehicles (AVs) would soon dive into the seas.

Thanks to the collaboration of Finferries and Rolls-Royce the world has seen a glimpse of the bright future of autonomous ships, making it certain that the marine world would definitely see automation taking over the waterways.

Although the technology is still years away from the expected reality, several companies are working day and night to develop hardcore artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms.

A complete autonomous ship would be the one vessel that can navigate and operate on its own without the aid of crew members.

From time to time, many confuse the concept of autonomous ships with remotely-controlled ships. Remotely-controlled ships are the vessels that are operated by humans from shore.

On the other hand, autonomous ships are solely run by software that manages its movement. As the technology matures, market players would shift their preference from manned ships to autonomous ships.

According to Allied Market Research, the global autonomous ship market is expected to acquire $134.90 billion by 2030 with annual growth of 4.4 percent from 2020 to 2030.

The increased demand for cargo transportation through marine and rise in operational safety of ships would be the major reason for the growth.

Demonstration of the world’s first fully autonomous ferry

Last year, the collaboration of the carmakers, Rolls-Royce and ferry operator, Finferries together demonstrated the world’s first autonomous ferry in Finland.

The ferry named Falco used ship intelligence technologies of Roll-Royce to navigate autonomously. The trip was designed between Parainen and Nauvo and the return journey was completed under remote control.

During this demonstration, Falco carried around 80 invited guests. The autonomous ship successfully detected several objects using technologies such as sensor fusion and AI to avoid the collision.

Moreover, it displayed its automatic berthing with its automation navigation system without any human intervention.

Why prefer autonomous ships?

It is no secret that autonomy and AI increase efficiency and relieve humans from unsafe and redundant tasks. According to the study, more than 75 percent of maritime accidents are caused due to human error.

Autonomous ships would help reduce the dependency on humans who could make mistakes due to fatigue or bad judgment.

Moreover, the assistance of AI algorithm could help crew members to make well-informed decisions. On the other hand, programmed ships would be trained to tackle every possible obstacle without rest, making oceans safer than ever.

Apart from this, autonomy reduces personnel and auxiliary costs during shipping. Roughly 30 percent of the total budget is set aside for crew-related expenses.

In fact, according to a study published by Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks, an estimated saving of more than $7 million over a period of 25 years every autonomous vessel in crew supplies and salaries and fuel consumption.

What are the challenges to overcome?

Although safety is one of the major reasons why the industry is embracing autonomy, it is a daunting task to navigate the enormous size of the ship in congested waters. There is a lot of testing to be required before the ship starts its voyage.

In fact, many believe that AI and other automated technologies would be used to reduce the repetitive tasks of the crew and assist them to make more informed decisions.

On the contrary, along with ensuring the safety of ships, it is imperative to discuss regulations of shared water.

The traditional laws were created assuming that there would always be a crew member on board. There would be drastic changes in the law to consider AI as captain of the ship.

Rapid developments in the industry

The advancements in R&D regarding AI and autonomous vehicles reached a remarkable milestone in China.

In the last month of 2019, China’s first autonomous ship successfully completed its voyage. Yunzhou Tech, a Chinese company that focuses on unmanned vehicles, had been working on this project along with China Classification Society and the Wuhan University of Technology.

The ship completed its trip from Zhuhuai’s Dong Ao island to Number 1 pier of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge.

According to Yunzhou, the ship is designed to navigate at 8 knots and it can save more than one-fifth of the construction costs as well as operating costs. Moreover, it can reduce fuel consumption by around 15 percent and minimize emissions.

The ship is operated via automatic navigation technology as well as a remote control. In addition, it is equipped with an electrified power plant. Prior to this, the ship had completed several remote-controlled navigation tests.

However, this was the first cargo-carrying test of the autonomous ship in China.

According to the pioneer in the autonomous ship, Rolls-Royce Marine, the technology would be a common sight on the waters by 2030.

Recently, the company collaborated with Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL) in a demonstration test on a ferry that was equipped with an AI system. Such frequents tests in one of the most congested waters in the world provide new opportunities for the company.

This way, it can enhance the existing intelligence system and improve the safety of the vessel.

What’s more, the US Navy intends to provide the autonomous ship the ability to talk. The threat of collision of autonomous ships with manned vessels is the major obstacle for the market and the Navy wants to develop a technology that could allow the robotic ships to talk like humans.

In simpler terms, the goal is to develop a bridge between crew and robots with the help of usual speech over VHF radio.

The demand for autonomy is ever-increasing and the advancements in AI are bound to fuel it. However, there are a couple of challenges to overcome.

Until there are significant changes in law and regulations, innovation in R&D, and updates in the autonomous technologies, the industry still has a few more years to see an autonomous ship on the sea waters.

However, until then, people would have to sit tight and keep a weather eye on the horizon for an autonomous ship.

About the author: Swamini Kulkarni holds a bachelor’s degree in Instrumentation and control engineering from Pune University, and works as a content writer. She is deeply fascinated by the impact of technology on human life, and loves to talk about science and mythology. When she is not glued to the computer, she loves to read, travel, and spend time thinking how she could read and travel more often.

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