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Coming Soon: Autonomous Freighters On The Oceans

Technology races forward in several industries. The military uses remote-controlled drones, vendors use drones to inspect buildings, companies test driver-less cars, automakers introduce cars with more automation, and retailers pursue delivery drones. Add shipping to the list of industries.

Experts predict that robotic ships will sail the oceans by 2020. The Infinity Leap site reported:

"The concept of robotic ships was revealed by Rolls Royce back in 2014. According to reports, the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) project guided by Rolls-Royce recently came up with a white paper which provides comprehensive details about the robotic ships or the autonomous vessels and the problems associated with them as far as their operation is concerned... the AAWA whitepaper is developed by Rolls-Royce with the support of partners like ESL Shipping, Finferries, Brighthouse Intelligence and the Tampere University of Technology. The AAWA whitepaper talks extensively about autonomous applications, and the issues related to the safety and certainty of designing and running the distantly controlled ships."

So, there's some new terminology to learn. Obviously, manned ships include on-board human crews that operate all ship's functions. There are subtle but important differences between automated, remote-controlled, and autonomous ships. The Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligent Networks (MUNIN) website provides some helpful definitions and diagrams:

"The remote ship is where the tasks of operating the ship are performed via a remote control mechanism (e.g. by a shore based human operator), and

The automated ship is where advanced decision support systems on board undertake all the operational decisions independently without intervention of a human operator."

I found this diagram helpful with understanding the different types of robotic ships:

MUNIN. Types of robotic ships. Click to view larger version

So, the remote human operator could be on land, on board another ship, or on board an airplane. And, remote-controlled ships will use augmented reality displays. Again, from Infinity Leap:

"According to reports, Rolls-Royce has developed a unique new bridge called ‘oX’ or the Future Operator Experience Concept in collaboration with Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre and Aalto University. It is learned that the bridge’s windows serve as augmented reality displays, which help in displaying necessary information and improve the visibility around the ship with the support of high-end cameras and sensors. That means the augmented reality windows help in displaying navigation tracks and give necessary warnings and information about the ships sailing nearby, ice and a whole lot of other invisible things."

The MUNIN site also provides a view of how decisions might be made by autonomous ships:

MUNIN. Decision making by autonomous ships. Click to view larger version

All of this makes one wonder how much of this automation the passenger cruise ship industry will adopt. It is a reminder of the importance of applying similar distinctions in types of automation to land-based commercial vehicles: delivery vans, school buses, inter-city buses, tractor-trailers, buses and trains in mass-transit systems, and construction equipment.

Would you want your children riding in autonomous school buses? How do you feel about riding in autonomous mass-transit buses or subways? Commuter trains?

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