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Self-driving boats: The next tech transportation race

  • Computer scientist Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik, of Sea Machines Robotics, uses a laptop to guide a boat outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and capable of autonomous navigation in Boston Harbor last month. AP

  • In this Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo, a boat capable of autonomous navigation makes its way around Boston Harbor. The experimental workboat spent this summer dodging tall ships and tankers, outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and emblazoned with the words “UNMANNED VESSEL” across its aluminum hull. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

  • In this Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo, Jeff Gawrys, marine technician for Boston startup Sea Machines Robotics, prepares to disengage the navigation of a boat and switch the vessel over to fully autonomous control in Boston Harbor. Spurred on by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles, maritime companies are taking advantage of technological breakthroughs and broader public acceptance of artificial intelligence to design tugboats, ferries and cargo vessels that won't need captains or crews, at least not on board. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

  • In this Aug. 15, 2017 photo, Frank Marino, an engineer with Sea Machines Robotics, uses a remote control belt pack to control a self-driving boat in Boston Harbor. Spurred on by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles, maritime companies are taking advantage of technological breakthroughs and broader public acceptance of artificial intelligence to design tugboats, ferries and cargo vessels that won't need captains or crews, at least not on board. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

  • In this Aug. 15, 2017 photo, engineer Frank Marino with Sea Machines Robotics uses a remote control belt pack to operate a boat in Boston Harbor. Spurred on by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles, maritime companies are taking advantage of technological breakthroughs and broader public acceptance of artificial intelligence to design tugboats, ferries and cargo vessels that won't need captains or crews, at least not on board. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

  • In this Aug. 15, 2017 photo, Michael Johnson, CEO of Sea Machines Robotics, poses for a photograph in Boston. His company is hoping to spark a new era of commercial marine innovation that could surpass the development of self-driving cars and trucks. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne



Associated Press
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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 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 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.

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 on board.

Distracted seafaring

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. It will be remotely-controlled from land as it travels the North Atlantic. He also plans to sell the technology to companies doing oil spill cleanups and other difficult work on the water, aiming to assist maritime crews, not replace them.

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.”

“Humans get distracted, humans get tired,” he said.

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