Autonomous ships…

Smart meters, smart phones, smart televisions, smart home security cameras, smart central heating, smart lighting, and smart white goods are commonplace in today’s world. We also regularly encounter smart motorways and ever-smarter vehicles as we go about our daily lives. All of this just illustrates that no aspect of our lives is immune to the relentless advance of digital technologies. However, while most public interest and mainstream media attention tends to focus on things that either do or will have a direct personal impact on the majority of us, there are many advances underway that get much less airtime. Autonomous ships seems to be one such area.

Some months ago, while examining the forecast timeline for the mass adoption of truly autonomous (driverless) cars on public highways, the Badger came across something that triggered more personal interest in progress towards autonomous ships. It was the online dashboard of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), a 15-metre-long research trimaran recreating the historic Mayflower voyage of 1620 from Plymouth in the UK to the USA , but with no humans on board! MAS, built by Promare and IBM, and packed with sensors, AI, and autonomous technology, has not been without problems, as you can see here. Nevertheless, it has now reached North America, all be it Halifax in Canada rather than the USA, and it’s been possible to monitor its vital signs and footage from its cameras via the online dashboard throughout the journey across the Atlantic.  

MAS’s journey will undoubtedly have added to the learning and knowledge essential for scaling up to the much larger autonomous ships of the future. Smart technology on large ships already has a lot of traction and Hyundai, for example, announced just a few days ago that it was the first to pilot a ‘large autonomous ship across the ocean. The ship was fully crewed and while much of its journey was under the control of autonomous technology, much of it was not. Realistically, the days of truly autonomous civilian shipping with no crew aboard are still some way off. As might be expected,  however,  in the military domain the development of small and large autonomous vessels for naval forces has been progressing steadily. Indeed, the USA, for example, has this year created an unmanned vessel division within its Navy, and is recognising a need to build a fleet of autonomous platforms to counter threats from other superpowers.

It’s inevitable that autonomous civilian and military ships will be a feature of life for future generations. Unlike autonomous cars and aircraft, they don’t seem to attract the same level of interest in the mainstream media and general public, which the Badger finds a little surprising given the UK is an island nation and taking a cruise holiday could one day mean travelling and living on a ship that has no crew!