Brunswick’s autonomous docking technology on display at the CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas – Copyright AFP Indranil MUKHERJEE
Whether on pleasure yachts or offshore cargo ships, AI-powered navigation assistance and autonomy are helping captains set sail for sunsets or simply dock in port without a scratch.
At the CES technology show in Las Vegas, boatbuilders are placing a heavy emphasis on technologies and artificial intelligence that make it easy for the weekend boater and seasoned sailor to go out to sea.
“On the water, there is wind, currents, sometimes waves, the boat does not stay in place, you always have to compensate,” said Johan Inden, president of the maritime business of the Swedish company Volvo Penta.
For more than ten years, the company’s boats have helped sailors maneuver using a simple joystick that holds the boat in position or jerks it sharply to the right or left.
Volvo Penta unveiled a prototype in 2018 that was capable of allowing the ship to dock itself, but customers weren’t ready to park their boats at the click of a button, Inden said.
Instead, the company developed the docking assist system “which gives the captain a certain level of control” when mooring the ship, a time “that remains one of the most stressful in sailing.”
Overall, the idea is to improve “safety, comfort, relaxation” and eventually make browsing more accessible, he said.
A prototype ship from the US company Brunswick offers the best trajectory to enter a port, avoids collisions and finds available places to dock a ship and does the job without human intervention.
Another software program, offered by Hyundai’s Avikus, can help maximize pleasure at sea.
A setup will ensure the boat is in the ideal position for sunbathing or will find the best spot to enjoy the sunset and be in time to see it.
The goal, according to company executive Carl Johansson, is to provide fuel economy, safety and “peace of mind.”
– ‘Reduce crew’ –
For merchant mariners, autonomous navigation is in the testing phase.
In Norway, an autonomous electric freighter has been transporting fertilizer from the factory to the port since last year, with the aim of reducing truck traffic.
While in Japan, a full-size automated ferry has been in operation between the two islands since last year, albeit for now with a crew on board.
If the reality of ships without human sailors remains elusive, many navigation tools can provide valuable help, in ports or in calculating the best route based on weather.
A computer-guided ride “provides much more reliable transportation,” said John Cross of Memorial University in Canada.
HD Hyundai, which unveiled a project to collect and analyze shipping data at CES, said its software will slow a ship if the destination port is congested, thereby reducing fuel consumption.
Autonomy tools can also be useful to help with maintenance by monitoring the health of engines or propellers.
In the long run, the companies’ goal is to “reduce crew numbers,” said John Cross. They may see it as a way to save money, but also to reduce risk, as shipboard accidents are still common.
It is also a way of addressing aging professional seafarers and recruitment difficulties.
The growth of work on autonomous navigation has been helped recently by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) decision to work on rule-setting, said Rudy Negenborn of Delft University in the Netherlands.
It is still prohibited to operate an autonomous ship in international waters and no new regulations are expected before 2028.
Technologies also need to be refined to improve safety, reduce power consumption and determine which sensors are the best and what to do if they fail, Negenborn said.
In any case, “there will always be a human somewhere,” he said. Whether it’s a sailor following an on-board computer or a shore supervisor managing multiple ships.