Self driving ships on horizon; could be operational by 2021

BOSTON (LOG NEWS SERVICE) — Self-driving cars may not hit the road in earnest for many years — but autonomous ships could be just over the horizon.

Spurred in part by the car industry’s race to build driverless vehicles, marine innovators are building automated ferryboats for Amsterdam canals, cargo ships that can steer themselves through Norwegian fjords and remote-controlled ships to carry containers across the Atlantic and Pacific. The first such autonomous ships could be in operation within three years.

One experimental workboat spent this summer dodging tall ships and tankers in Boston Harbor, outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and emblazoned with the words “UNMANNED VESSEL” across its hull.

“We’re in full autonomy now,” Jeff Gawrys, a marine technician for Boston startup Sea Machines Robotics, said while sitting at the helm as the boat floated through a harbor channel.

The boat still needs human oversight. But some of the world’s biggest maritime firms have committed to designing ships that won’t need any captains or crews — at least not on board.

Japanese shipping firm Nippon Yusen K.K. — operator of the cargo ship that slammed into a U.S. Navy destroyer in a deadly June collision — plans to test its first remote-controlled vessel in 2019, part of a Japanese effort to deploy hundreds of autonomous container ships by 2025. A Chinese alliance has set a goal of launching its first self-navigating cargo ship in 2021.

Ship navigation could be much easier than car navigation, said Carlo Ratti, an MIT professor working with Dutch universities to launch self-navigating vessels in Amsterdam next year. The city’s canals, for instance, have no pedestrians or bikers cluttering the way, and are subject to strict speed limits.

Marine engineer Michael Johnson believes that we are relying too much on old-world technology. “Humans get distracted, humans get tired,” he said.

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