You heard a lot about driverless cars, now get ready for unmanned boats

There has been a lot of column inches dedicated to the subject of driverless cars in recent months as trials on UK roads have got under way. Less, however, has been written about autonomous transport of another kind – namely driverless boats.

It would seem a no-brainer that if the technology is almost here to enable driverless cars to negotiate a busy spaghetti junction then it can be adapted to facilitate, for example, unmanned sea-going vessels to carry out search missions or to control a pilotless cargo ship on a four-week pre-set course from China to Europe. Indeed, it could be argued that this is a better use of the technology.

There are plenty of examples of strides being made in this area.

One interesting example is a project being led by students from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia, who have designed an autonomous boat that they hope will one day be able to track down missing debris, rescue sailors in distress and search for oil slicks in dangerous sea conditions. Currently, the vessel is able to travel from A to B, but is not yet equipped to deal with the fast changing circumstances that typically occur during a rescue situation.

In the US, the Navy is experimenting with an autonomous boat called a “swarm boat.” Swarm boats are driverless small boats used to intercept incoming vessels that may be a threat to larger ships. One US Navy serviceman likens these nippy seagoing drones to guard dogs in this online video and says that humans at the remote control can even make the boats open fire if the situations calls for such a measure. The software guiding these swarm boats is based on that used in the Mars Rover. The Navy says they could be part of the fleet within a year.

Closer to home, the EU has launched £2.8m project called Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence (Munin) with the aim of developing an autonomous ship. The body says crewless ships have the potential to help overcome some of the key future challenges facing the shipping sector, such as increases in transport volumes, growing environmental requirements and a shortage of seafarers.

Manufacturer Rolls Royce has already unveiled concept designs for an unmanned cargo ship, which looks quite different to a traditional cargo ship, namely because it does not require any facilities for a crew. One of the main drivers for unmanned cargo ships is the reduced crew costs – living quarters, sanitation, heating, food etc. – which experts says can account for up to 44% of operating costs.


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