Is it time for ships to sail off on a journey by themselves? As the Internet of Things (IoT) connects the world, while the robotics industry continues to innovate, man and machine are merging together like never before. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have impacted a number of industries from agriculture to security. If recent news is correct, it won’t be long before autonomous cars are traveling roads alongside us. Now, organizations and government agencies around the world are actively working to bring autonomous vessels to our oceans.
What can we expect from unmanned ships operating in our largest bodies of water?
IoT and robotics are being considered for a variety of commercial and military purposes at sea. For most of the world, it seems autonomous ships are in the testing phase, but there are big plans in the works around the globe:
- The British engine maker Rolls Royce Holdings, PLC is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative with several other organizations and universities. The company is eyeing a timeline of remotely controlled ships setting sail by 2030 with completely autonomous ships in service by 2035. The timeline will be heavily dependent upon automation technologies’ ability to carry large amount of data from ship to shore to ensure safe operations.
- Recently, the UK’s Automated Ships Ltd and Norway’s Kongsberg Maritime, unveiled plans for a light-duty ship for surveying, delivering cargo to offshore installations and launching and recovering smaller remote-controlled and autonomous vehicles. “This ship is considered the world’s first unmanned ship for offshore operations and is being eyed for many uses including offshore energy, fish farming and scientific industries.”
- In the U.S., the Navy has begun to consider autonomous ships for a number of applications, but is cautiously approaching these new technology advancements. According to National Defense Magazine, “The Navy for now appears to be in no hurry to pour big money into drone ships and submarines. And there is little tolerance these days for risky gambles on technologies.” However, the article acknowledges that robots at sea could help do the jobs that are dangerous or costly for human operators, such as hunting enemy submarines, detonating sea mines, medical evacuations and ship repairs.
- The European Union (EU) appears to have a vested interest in sea robotics. As infrastructure costs rise for improving rails and roads, they have begun to seek alternative ways to move large quantities of cargo. According to Maritime Executive they have, “had a long-term goal of making short sea shipping more competitive with road and rail transport, which is under stress from the transportation bottlenecks caused by increasing volumes of internal trade.” As the EU faces massive infrastructure costs to upgrade road and rail, there is increased attention and effort directed at the “motorways of the sea.”
- The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been testing a robotic ship called the “Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel,” and has been running sea trials on its radar system. The radar is fastened to a parasail that enables heights of 500-1,500 feet.
These are just a few of the autonomous vessel projects in the works. In order for unmanned vessels to operate, it is clear the ability to transport data in massive amounts will play a critical role in the success and safety of those sharing the sea with autonomous ships. As technologies evolve to meet these big data needs, we can eventually expect to see more unmanned vessels in the sea, improving offshore applications, making human jobs safer, and creating new efficiencies for organizations looking to optimize international trade.