AI Industry

Self-Driving Boats: Ghosts on the Ocean

Maritime transportation industry has been facing employment shortage. Manless operations may solve this problem and reduce the high cost of manpower. In comparison to land autonomous driving, there are fewer obstacles on the sea where travel routes are more open.

Self-driving boats have existed for a long time: they navigate the oceans, driven by the wind, recording climate data or monitoring water currents. Autonomous underwater vehicles developed by the University of Washington have been used for performing dangerous tasks since 1957. Recent advances in AI may soon broaden the role of these ghost boats.

The maritime transportation industry has been facing employment shortages. Autonomous vessels may solve this problem and reduce the high crew costs. In comparison to land-based autonomous driving, there are fewer obstacles on the sea where travel routes are more open. Energy consumption and sensor cost are also less restrictive factors.

To this end, Norwegian chemical company Yara International has announced that it will launch self-driving cargo ships in 2018. The fleet will cost US$25 million, but the company claims it will save up to 90% on crew and energy operating costs.


The AI Revolution in Maritime Transportation

Human Labor Cost Reduction: self-driving cargo ships have a significant advantage for long distance travel, especially for saving labor costs. With the help of AI and sensors, a small crew can handle many ships. Sensors also simplify maintenance by locate potential problems and notifying the crew in advance.

Saildrone collecting data in San Francisco Bay

Reduced Energy Consumption: AI can be used to optimized marine routes. Data analytics will find the best travel path taking in consideration current, wind, and sunlight. Travel speed controlled by AI will also save energy during shipping.

Supply Chain Optimization
Supply chain optimization will save storage costs and time spent at port. AI in the harbor and management will improve cargo combinations for each shipment, which will shorten travel distances and make full use of cargo space on ships.

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Roboat is the first self-driving boat for people and goods transportation. The research program hopes to deploy the first river self-driving system in the city of Amsterdam.

Collision Prevention
Equipped with an accurate map, ships can avoid reefs and underwater rocks. However, ports with heavy traffic are also dangerous for ships. Improved fleet communication and AI-powered collision detection could provide more safety for passengers and cargo.

Efficient Ship Design
Unmanned cargo vessels will change in design, as ships will no longer need to provide space for crews. Moreover, advanced weight control will ensure a more stable and smooth ship. For example, instead of adding water as ballast, the cargo could be re-positioned to achieve the same result.

Eco-Friendly Shipping
Pollution from the world’s top 16 ships is almost equal to the total pollution from all land vehicles. AI can reduce pollution by reducing fuel consumption. AI will also help boats make better use of currents, wind, and solar energy.

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Shipping pollution is a critical issue


Obstacles for AI in Maritime Transportation

Interference from Interest Groups
Like land-based self-driving, there will be resistance coming from crew unions.

Backup Plan to Increase the Robustness
Ships must guarantee that at critical moment there will be an alternative plan. All of the components in the vehicle should function well during the long-distance shipment, but this also means increased operating costs.

Contributing Analyst: Alex Chen | Editor: Meghan Han, Michael Sarazen

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1 comment on “Self-Driving Boats: Ghosts on the Ocean

  1. Marx Bronx

    You will never make me travel with self-driving boats ha ha

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