Self-driving boats might row soon

By: | Published: June 10, 2018 2:10 AM

Such boats have improved navigation, steering, and docking capabilities, and can be made cheap with relatively low-cost 3D printers.

boat, self driveAmsterdam might soon see such boats on its waterways, researchers from MIT say.

There’s an autonomous revolution underway, and nearly every mode of transportation will eventually be self-driving. For cars, it’s likely to take decades before we see them operating freely, outside of test conditions. Some unmanned watercraft, on the other hand, may be at the sea commercially before 2020. The common place of robo-taxis may still be some time away, but autonomous boats are chipping in to ease traffic and collisions.

If the researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are to be believed, then fleets of self-driving boats that will be cheaply mass-produced aren’t that far. Even as self-driving car projects are facing hurdles, and also causing accidents, the interest in autonomous boats has picked up. The main thing to be fixed on the boats is adjusting their steering algorithms to better handle strong river currents. The autonomous boats developed by researchers from MIT will first be tested in Amsterdam to ferry commuters and goods about the city.

People are interested in self-driven boats, large and small, that could save fuel and prevent accidents. Autonomous boat research isn’t new, but other attempts at a self-driving boat weren’t as sophisticated. These new boats have improved navigation, steering, and docking capabilities, and can be made cheap with relatively low-cost 3D printers.

The researchers at the MIT have designed a 3-D-printable, 13X6 ft boat they think could ferry people or goods around cities with rich waterways like Amsterdam or Bangkok. The team of engineers believe they could notably reduce traffic congestion in places like Venice, where there are canals and waterways throughout. And now, there are some start-ups and major firms like Rolls-Royce that are looking to automate the seas, and help maritime companies ease navigation and make more money.

Buffalo Automation, a start-up with close ties to the University at Buffalo in New York, is developing autonomous boats and ships since 2015. The company has equipped boats of different sizes with lidar, heat-sensitive cameras, and GPS. It started by making a self-driving boat, where the computer handles the steering, along with a human supervising, ready to take control if something goes wrong. It has progressed to speed boats that don’t need any human intervention. Cameras around the boat remain vigilant for other water users, logs, kayakers, and swimmers. It is also working on handling ships as long as 800 feet in tricky situations.

According to reports, the US navy is also exploring the usefulness of having autonomous boats to patrol coastlines or surround a hostile vessel. It’s developing a system that would allow autonomous vessels to talk to each other and collectively decide on the best approach to block a boat’s path or nudge it clear of a restricted area. The London-based International Maritime Organization, which sets the standards for international waters, is looking at autonomous ships with great interest. It launched a regulatory-scoping exercise last year to analyse the impact of autonomous boats.

Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. The new players’ entry may force them to be more competitive and ultimately drive down costs. The technologies required, such as sensors and GPS, already exist and aren’t the challenge for the industry. The challenge is to find an effective way in which to combine them reliably and cost-effectively.

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