Self-driving and autonomous ships being developed in Europe

Self-driving and autonomous ships being developed in Europe

In an interesting move for the AI autonomous vehicle space, a consortium made up of the EU’s Maritime Unmanned Navigation Through Intelligence in Networks Project, China’s Maritime Safety Administration, Wuhan University of Technology, and Rolls-Royce are developing self-driving technology for oceangoing ships to be deployed by 2020.

Developing and testing self-driving technology in the ocean is a fraction of the cost of testing on highways and the technology resulting therefrom is cross-applicable. A key driver for self-driving ships is pressure from the shipping industry, increased cargo demands and a declining labour workforce in shipping.

The consortium is testing sensor arrays in various operating and climate conditions in Finland, and creating a simulated autonomous boat control system with situational-awareness sensors. The Norwegian Maritime Authority and Norwegian Coastal Administration authorized trials of self-driving boats in the Trondheim Fjord.

In a similar vein, Canada’s Saguenay fjord would be an ideal testing ground for self-driving boats, as would British Columbia. Vancouver is Canada’s most important port, handling over 150 million tons of cargo annually, valued at $200 billion. If Canada had a national AI strategy, it could encompass this critical sector with Vancouver or Québec being the ideal jurisdiction to invest in self-driving oceangoing ships. The St. Lawrence River, for example, has mandatory ship pilotage to navigate its treacherous waters and would be an ideal navigable waters testing ground for autonomous shipping with predictive AI.

In 2014, the US Navy began developing drone boats for autonomous defence at sea. The drone boats use limited AI to coordinate automatic assaults on enemy vessels. For example, if a potential threat is detected, a team of drone boats collectively decide which of them should pursue the threat. In the future, such boats could be a first line of defence for protection, escorting, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

In Australia, a startup developed an anti-shark drone that uses sensors, deep learning neural networks and image processing technology that identifies sharks in the water along popular beaches and sends warnings to lifeguards at beaches. It works by analyzing footage in real time, and relaying the data immediately to life guards so that they can make decisions about allowing people to swim at public beaches or not. The drone can distinguish between sharks and other marine animals, such as dolphins and whales, and distinguish between sharks and surfers, swimmers or boats.

Tracking ships in oceans can also be improved with AI. While 90% of the world’s cargo moves by sea, once cargo is on a ship, there is little information available to charter parties about what paths ships take. Only recently have large ships commenced regularly transmitting location data, but even then they can “go dark” at any time – a problem big data and AI may be able to rectify.

An Israel-based startup is working to address this problem. It developed tech with natural language processing-based AI systems to identify pathways and patterns of behaviour of ships at sea, creating maps that show when a ship meets another vessel mid-ocean to transfer cargo, or crosses in and out of a country’s territorial waters in patterns that suggest illegal fishing or other unusual behaviour for border officials, law enforcement agencies, fishing authorities, coast guards and insurance companies.

Rolls-Royce and the Autonomous Shipping Alliance are opening a R&D Centre for Remote Control & Autonomous Ships and Artificial Intelligence in Finland. The Centre will provide the world’s first autonomous maritime services by 2025, including autonomous shipping platforms. It will explore sensor fusion, control algorithms (navigation and collision avoidance) and communications to command bases.

Bourbon, a services company in France, is partnering with Automated Ships Ltd. in the UK, to build the world’s first fully autonomous prototype ship, the Hronn, for offshore energy operations. The Hronn will be a light-duty utility ship that services offshore energy sites and fish farms employing dynamic positioning, satellites, marine automation and communication technologies. The Hronn’s sea trials will take place in Norway and be observed by the Norwegian Maritime Authority.

The Digital Finance Institute wrote and published a Report on Commercial AI (available here) that canvassed the pulse of AI from media stories and academic reports, covering various sectors of the economy. This article covers the autonomous vehicles – ships portion of the Report.

[1] Oliver Mitchell, Hacker Noon, “Autonomous Boats By 2020,” February 18, 2017.

[2] Oliver Mitchell, Hacker Noon, “Autonomous Boats By 2020,” February 18, 2017.

[3] Christine Duhaime, “Stratégie de navigation durable avec l’intelligence artificielle pour le fleuve Saint-Laurent,” 2017.

[4] Rich McCormick, The Verge, “The US Navy has a new fleet of artificially intelligent drone boats,” October 7, 2014.

[5] Jeremy Hsu, IEEE Spectrum, “U.S. Navy’s Drone Boat Swarm Practices Harbor Defense,” December 19, 2017.

[6] Cecile Borkhataria, The Daily Mail, “How Australia’s new shark-detecting drones spot the difference between human swimmers and underwater threats,” April 21, 2017.

[7] Nanette Byrnes, MIT Technology Review, “This $1 Trillion Industry Is Finally Going Digital,” October 24, 2016.

[8] Nanette Byrnes, MIT Technology Review, “This $1 Trillion Industry Is Finally Going Digital,” October 24, 2016.

[9] Marine Log, SciPol, “Rolls-Royce moves ahead on autonomous ship R&D,” March 10, 2017.

[10] Rolls-Royce, “Autonomous ships: The next step,” 2016.

[11] MarEx, Maritime Executive, “Bourbon Joins Autonomous Ship Initiative,” July 11, 2017.


1 thought on “Self-driving and autonomous ships being developed in Europe”

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