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Business News/ News / World/  Robot boats leave autonomous cars in their wake

Robot boats leave autonomous cars in their wake

Driverless ships don’t have to worry about crowded roads. And they don’t need bunks—or toilets.

Promare, a U.K. ocean-research nonprofit, in partnership with International Business Machines Corp., will unveil this new, fully autonomous Mayflower on Sept. 16 in Portsmouth.

Four hundred years after the trans-Atlantic crossing of the Mayflower, a ship of the same name will retrace its historic voyage. But while the original Mayflower bore 102 passengers to Plymouth Rock, this one will ply the seas for about two weeks next spring with no living souls aboard.

Promare, a U.K. ocean-research nonprofit, in partnership with International Business Machines Corp., will unveil this new, fully autonomous Mayflower on Sept. 16 in Portsmouth, the same seaside English town from which its namesake set sail in 1620.

The symbolism of sending a crewless, autonomous ship across an ocean in 2021—as automation accelerates the economic divide among American workers—might be a little on the nose, but its creators insist autonomous ships aren’t about replacing people. Instead, this technology is intended to serve where crewed voyages are deemed too expensive—or too risky.

This is a common refrain among firms building autonomous ships: For the 70% of the Earth’s surface covered by water, there are far too few humans and vessels, despite a pressing need for oceanographic data, scientific research, naval patrols and new means of transporting goods. This is in contrast to the situation on our roads, or even in our skies. Yet as with autonomous cars and aerial drones, launching an autonomous ship depends as much on risk tolerance as it does technical barriers.

Humans Need Not Apply

Our oceans, even our inland waterways, are a vastly under-utilized asset, these pioneers of robot ships argue. We could utilize them more, and do so in ways that are cleaner and more efficient, if we could borrow from the way we’ve successfully used robots to explore other places that were relatively free of obstacles, like outer space. After all, ships that don’t have to protect humans from a harsh marine environment don’t need pilothouses, bunks, flat decks—or bathrooms.

“If you have a toilet on a ship, you need water on the ship. You can’t put your s— into New York Harbor, and you have to take it into some sort of container and then, in port, suck it out," says Antoon Van Coillie, CEO of Belgian barge transportation company Zulu Associates. “So a toilet on a ship is a very expensive piece of equipment."

Mr. Van Coillie’s company, which uses crewed vessels to move shipping containers on inland rivers and canals, is exploring autonomy. He says it would make the business cost-competitive with trucking, especially in markets where congestion on roads is an issue.

For U.K.-based Sea-Kit International, eliminating humans on its vessel means it can do with a 12-meter-long ship what would normally require a crewed one 60 meters long. The difference in size means a drastic reduction in fuel consumption: Sea-Kit’s vessel consumes roughly 1/100th of a comparable crewed one.

The three-year-old startup, winner of the 2019 Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize, will soon deliver two vessels for underwater surveys. They’re not fully autonomous, since they’re monitored remotely by a human, but they operate without a crew aboard and can navigate independently from one waypoint to another.

Two Norwegian companies, Kongsberg Maritime and Massterly, just unveiled a partnership with grocery distributor ASKO to deliver fully electric, minimally crewed barges in 2022. The barges will transport trailers full of goods across the Oslo fjord, in order to reduce emissions from truck transportation. Autonomous technology on board will be implemented in stages, and monitored for safety and performance by the Norwegian Maritime Authority. Kongsberg already offers small autonomous surface vessels to fishing fleets, and partially autonomous technology used on ferries.

Much autonomous ship technology was born of military contracts. L3Harris has been producing autonomous ships for more than a decade for many of the world’s navies. Unarmed and relatively small, these vessels are meant for cartography, mine detection and target practice. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a fully autonomous sub hunter in 2016, which it transferred to the U.S. Navy in 2018. Its successor, Sea Hunter II, is slated to launch by the end of the year, and its lead contractor is Leidos.

High-Seas Adventure

In many ways, autonomy is much easier on the ocean than on land. “You have a larger area to operate, and there’s a lot less opportunity to collide with other vehicles or pedestrians," says Neil Tinmouth, chief operating officer of Sea-Kit.

But as anyone who watches the Discovery Channel knows, the ocean is not to be trifled with.

“Yes, the ocean is a vast expanse of nothing," says Don Scott, chief technology officer of Marine AI, which is building the autonomous Mayflower. “But it’s an incredibly dynamic expanse of nothingness."

That dynamism most often manifests as storms, and the North Atlantic is notorious for them, one reason the Mayflower team is waiting until spring to launch.

The Mayflower is programmed to handle storms as well as it can. Experienced mariners helped inform how it will behave in rough seas, and experienced shipbuilders constructed its hull. But no nonmilitary surface ship of its size has ever attempted an unmanned trans-Atlantic crossing. And shipping remains a dangerous profession, even for crewed vessels. In 2019, 41 large ships were lost. Ships of every size succumb to a variety of threats, from fires to rogue waves. Since the Mayflower will spend periods of its voyage with no connection to shore—in some spots in the Atlantic, even satellite internet can be unreliable—it could vanish without a trace on its maiden voyage.

Weather aside, one of the biggest hazards is other ships. When piloted by humans, ships obey an explicit set of regulations handed down by the International Maritime Organization, intended to keep them from colliding with one another.

As a result, any AI that’s intended to steer a ship in international waters must not only obey these regulations, but must also be able to explain what decisions it is making and why, says Andy Stanford Clark, chief technology officer for IBM in the U.K. and Ireland, and one of the engineers helping to build the Mayflower’s “AI Captain."

Some of its software is repurposed from the financial-services industry. Those businesses must also obey regulations and, for accountability, carefully record decisions made by humans or machines. Just as a bank’s software must be able to show precisely why it denied a credit-card transaction, the Mayflower must follow an elaborate decision tree when deciding whether to pass another ship or give way to avoid a collision.

Engineers at Promare trained the ship’s computer-vision system on millions of images of ships, buoys, floating debris and the like, in hopes it will recognize what it encounters and act accordingly.

When compared with autonomous cars, ships have the advantage of not having to make split-second decisions in order to avoid catastrophe. The open ocean is also free of jaywalking pedestrians, stoplights and lane boundaries. That said, robot ships share some of the problems that have bedeviled autonomous vehicles on land, namely, that they’re bad at anticipating what humans will do, and have limited ability to communicate with them.

While shipping has adopted technology like the Automated Identification System, much of the communication between ports and ships is still carried out through voice communication over radio. And the conditions in and around ports can be crowded and treacherous.

“Technically, it’s not possible yet to make an autonomous ship that operates safely and efficiently in crowded areas and in port areas," says Rudy Negenborn, a professor at TU Delft who researches and designs systems for autonomous shipping.

Makers of autonomous ships handle these problems by giving humans remote control. But what happens when the connection is lost? Satisfactory solutions to these problems have yet to arrive, adds Dr. Negenborn.

A Whole New World

The economics of robo-shipping don’t make as much sense when dealing with those leviathans of the open ocean, container ships and tankers. These vessels already carry tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cargo, with crews as small as a dozen sailors. Plus, the International Maritime Organization—which does not regulate vessels under a certain size—has yet to finalize rules that would allow such large vessels to pilot themselves. That could take years.

For the people building today’s autonomous vessels, the aim is to populate our waters with ships that can endure for weeks or even months without having to return to port, performing humble but important tasks like inspecting subsea infrastructure, ferrying goods via river and canal or providing landing platforms for reusable rocket boosters. Importantly, some will gather data on our world’s oceans, which in many respects remain as unknown to us as outer space.

Only 20% of the ocean floor has been mapped, for example. The Mayflower’s primary mission is scientific, and it will include bays for an array of different experiments, from measuring plastic pollution to recording whale songs.

First the Mayflower has to get out of port, however. It’s been trained to recognize kayaks, canoes and Sea-Doos, but not, admits Mr. Scott, people on stand-up paddleboards. “That just looks like a person walking on water to our computer-vision system," he adds. The team has yet to decide whether or not the Mayflower should leave port in fully autonomous mode—or whether they shouldn’t risk it, in case curious Britons attempt to approach it as it departs for the New World.

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Write to Christopher Mims at christopher.mims@wsj.com

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