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Self-driving boats: The next tech transportation race

BOSTON (AP) – Self-driving cars may not hit the road in earnest for many years – but autonomous boats could be just around the pier.

Spurred in part by the car industry’s race to build driverless vehicles, marine innovators are building automated ferry boats 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 3 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 aluminum hull.

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

“Roger that,” said computer scientist Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik, as he helped to guide the ship from his laptop on a nearby dock.

Distractions

The ocean is “a wide open space,” said Sea Machines CEO Michael Johnson.

Based out of an East Boston shipyard once used to build powerful wooden clippers, the cutting-edge sailing vessels of the 19th century, his company is hoping to spark a new era of commercial marine innovation that could surpass the development of self-driving cars and trucks.

The startup has signed a deal with an undisclosed company to install the “world’s first autonomy system on a commercial containership,” Johnson said this week.

Johnson, a marine engineer whose previous job took him to the Italian coast to help salvage the sunken cruise ship Costa Concordia, said that deadly 2012 capsizing and other marine disasters have convinced him that “we’re relying too much on old-world technology.”

Armchair captains

Researchers have already begun to design merchant ships that will be made more efficient because they don’t need room for seamen to sleep and eat. But in the near future, most of these ships will be only partly autonomous.

Armchair captains in a remote operation center could be monitoring several ships at a time, sitting in a room with 360-degree virtual reality views. When the vessels are on the open seas, they might not need humans.

It’s just the latest step in what has been a gradual automation of maritime tasks.

“If you go back 150 years, you had more than 200 people on a cargo vessel. Now you have between 10 and 20,” said Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation for Rolls-Royce’s marine business.

CHANGING RULES OF THE SEA

There are still some major challenges ahead. Uncrewed vessels might be more vulnerable to piracy or even outright theft via remote hacking of a ship’s control systems. Some autonomous vessels might win public trust faster than others; unmanned container ships filled with bananas might not raise the same concerns as oil tankers plying the waters near big cities or protected wilderness.

A decades-old international maritime safety treaty also requires that “all ships shall be sufficiently and efficiently manned.” But The International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping, has begun a 2-year review of the safety, security and environmental implications of autonomous ships.

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