A future with no one at the ship’s helm?

by Dirk Shaw

In 2017, two entrepreneurs working on self-driving cars learned that with 80% of goods being shipped by sea they could have an enormous impact by pivoting their business, Shone, toward the seas and installing systems on cargo ships to detect surrounding ships and obstacles.

There are now a handful of companies in the space, but all have similar goals to reduce costs and improve safety, as 75% of incidents at sea from 2011-2016 were due to human error. A major difference between the road and sea is that while autonomous cars replace a single driver, these ships can have crews of dozens and an autonomous operator is no replacement for the mechanical maintenance and emergencies that can occur once underway.

Developing that trust requires better AI that better interacts with humans to better meet human expectations. Adobe’s Oliver Brdiczka explains this next phase in Contextual AI: The next frontier of artificial intelligence

The initial rollout is underway in smaller ships, like tugs and ferries, but most seem to be targeting the freight market of large cargo ships for short or long journeys. Shone retrofits existing cargo ships, which due to the available and highly capable sonar, radar, and navigation systems can be relatively easy. With the help of 360-degree cameras, artificial intelligence, and sensor data for object recognition and detection, they can display the ship’s surroundings for the crew on iPads. Directional microphones detect a ship’s horn and algorithmically pinpoint its location, even helping to detect if a distant ship is worthy of extra attention due to atypical behavior.

  • intelligibility: the AI system can explain what it knows
  • adaptivity: the AI system can apply its knowledge successfully outside a single environment
  • customizable: users must be able to control the AI system’s functions
  • context-aware: the system must understand the human’s perspective

While it’s tempting to imagine ships with no one at the helm, the more likely outcome is that freighters would only be autonomous in the open ocean. Even getting there will take time, but the near future will more than likely involve ships captained remotely from an onshore operations center, with video and data streamed from land-based networks.

If the development of these systems continues on their current course, these businesses can improve not only safety, efficiency, and costs, but bettering the lives of seafarers whose jobs would no longer require them to be away from home for months at a time.

Read the full story here.