AI Will Run the Autonomous Ships of the Future

2020-01-13 11:32:29

The idea of a "ghost ship" — a crewless vessel, perpetually roaming the oceans because of some curse — has fueled the imaginations of mariners for quite a long time. The Flying Dutchman, the most well-known ghost ship, was a source of material for Sir Walter Scott and others and turned into a sort of UFO/Bigfoot for mariners in the 19th and 20th centuries. Britain's future King George V, for example, described a sighting in 1881, and the crew members of a German U-boat said they saw it off the South African coast during World War II, among other sightings in between.
 
The U.S. Naval force's new Sea Hunter probably won't rouse fanciful stories or Wagner operas, however, individuals won't need to use their minds to see it, since it is real. It likewise has no crew on board, but instead of being powered by ghosts or spells, it's powered by artificial intelligence and a vast array of sensor systems. Also, if the Navy, other nations and the commercial ship industry have their way, it will soon have a lot of company on the seas.

The Navy's Office of Naval Research recently took possession of Sea Hunter, a robotic anti-submarine vessel, and currently the world's largest unmanned ship. Developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a part of its Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, program, it represents another progression toward the Navy's plans for using unmanned crafts that are more affordable to operate — and less risky for human crews. 

"ACTUV represents a new vision of naval surface warfare that trades small numbers of very capable, high-value assets for large numbers of commoditized, similar platforms that are capable in the aggregate," Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, said when DARPA handed over Sea Hunter to ONR. "The U.S. military has discussed the key significance of replacing 'king' and 'queen' pieces on the maritime chessboard with lots of 'pawns,' and ACTUV is an initial move toward doing exactly that."

Sea Hunter: The Future of Autonomous Ships
Sea Hunter is a 130-foot multihull boat — the main hull and two smaller outriggers — that at an early demonstration two years back was described by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work as resembling "a Klingon bird of prey." It can operate for months at a time, staying within maritime laws and practices for safe navigation, with a range of 10,000 nautical miles going at 12 knots. It uses a high-frequency sonar array to find mines and even silent-running subs. 

ACTUV was started in 2010, with ONR joining as a partner in 2014. Built by Vigor Works (at the time called Oregon Iron Works) with a navigation system designed by Leidos, the ship currently goes to ONR for further development. The prototype cost $23 million to produce, the Defense Department said. Meanwhile, Leidos, which eventually took over the initial project, is working with Sea Hunter II under a $35.5 million contract awarded in December.

The Navy has made a priority of autonomous unmanned vessels, with other projects, for example, its autonomous swarm boats, which can work in tandem with other surface drones or manned vessels, and submerged "ocean gliders" for gathering oceanographic data. Early versions of the vessels were operated by remote, and although some still are, advances in ML and AI are making full autonomy a reality.

Advantages of Autonomous Ships
A few noteworthy players in the industry are predicting when they will have autonomous ships.

A year ago, Mikael Makinen, president of Rolls-Royce Marine, announced, "Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As penetrative as the smartphone industry, the smart ship will revolutionalize the landscape of ship design and operations."

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development evaluated that in 2015, total seaborne trade volume outperformed 10 billion tons for the first time — around a four-fold increase since 1970.

Autonomous boats can clearly offer the benefit of eliminating the expense of salaries and advantages for crew members. This is more important for small vessels, where crew costs make up a bigger share of total costs, however, less important on larger ships. For large ships, the other potential cost savings go beyond minor decreases in personnel costs.

Efficiencies of Crewless Ships
Once the requirement for having people on board is eliminated, the whole vessel can be fundamentally redesigned to improve efficiencies in new ways. For instance, systems once needed to make the vessel decent for the crew can be removed altogether, simplifying the design.

The deckhouse that currently sits over the deck of ships, holding the crew and enabling them to direct the vessel, would no longer be required. This could open up more space for cargo, possibly making loading easier, or allow for a more streamlined profile.

At the point when automation becomes viable, the industry isn't planning to simply make the same cargo ships they currently do but without the crew. They are planning on making an entirely different class of vessels re-envisioned starting from the earliest stage.

It seems likely that the reduction in crew members will occur before total crew replacement. Until robots become dextrous enough to fix engines or complete other routine onboard tasks, people may need to be in the loop – regardless of emergencies.

Will it Eliminate Human Errors and Risks Associated with it?
Autonomy also holds the promise of reducing human error and accordingly cutting down costs identified with mishaps and insurance. As per Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty, somewhere in the range of 75% and 96% of all mishaps in the transportation sector can be ascribed to human blunder. These incidents rank as the top reason for liability loss.

The Costa Concordia debacle is perhaps the most renowned case of how much damage human error can cause when dealing with massive ocean-going vessels. It is not necessarily the case that machines could never commit errors, yet we may imagine hat in time machines will make docking and navigation overall (similarly as automation plays a critical role for aircraft).

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