Will Autonomous Boats Become a Thing?

By Anna Johansson March 08, 2016

The tech world is currently buzzing about autonomous cars. Will they be safe? Will they ever hit the market? What manufacturer will get there first? It’s pretty clear that self-driving vehicles are the future, but the question is, will it stop with cars?

Once autonomous cars become mainstream in modern society, it won’t be long until the technology is utilized for other means of transportation. It may be awhile before anyone will trust autonomous aircraft, but boats are another story. In fact, there have already been several innovations in the self-driving boat category.

The thing about boats is that they’re already basically self-driving. The captain sets the course, and the boat sails by itself. However, someone usually remains close by to ensure there are no accidents. A boat can be a fairly dangerous thing. It could run out of fuel, face inclement weather, or lose communication. There are certain safety precautions that must be taken to prevent these things from happening, and having a person on board is one such thing.

However, having a person onboard at all times is often a safety hazard. Every year, the Coast Guard reports an average of 6,000 accidents and more than 700 deaths. The majority of those accidents are related to inclement weather. The ability to run a boat carrying cargo without putting anyone in danger could be incredible. It could save hundreds of lives and prevent thousands of injuries every year.

Right now, the development of self-driving boats isn’t far off. The Coast Guard has already developed self-driving cruisers to aid in defending naval ships and rescuing those fallen at sea.

Currently, Navy ships are most vulnerable when they’re resupplying in port or navigating down narrow straits. It’s tricky to maneuver in such tight quarters, and those looking to pirate the supplies on board or attack a U.S. government ship are well aware of this fact. It’s hard to forget the 17 soldiers who died during an attack in Yemen on the USS Cole while it was refueling.

In an effort to defend their ships, the U.S. Navy has developed a line of autonomous vessels that can go before a naval ship and scan the area for danger. These look for mines and attackers while the human operator is safely protected on a helicopter or behind an office desk.

The Coast Guard hasn’t revealed much about how the technology operates, but it seems to be very similar to what’s being used in autonomous cars. It follows a GPS system to stay on course, and its many sensors and radars transmit communications to keep the other boats safe.

Right now, there is always a human in the loop. If something happens to the human captain, or communications between the two go down, the boat will cease to operate. This makes it a little different from self-driving cars that don’t need a human to be in contact with the vehicle at all times.

This doesn’t mean that a human will be required for autonomous boats to operate in the future. For the purposes of the Coast Guard, it makes sense that you would keep a human in the loop at all times, but when it comes to cargo ships or self-driving ferries, it may not be necessary. The operators can set a GPS and let a ship go, sending in air support if anything goes wrong.

Right now, it doesn’t look like autonomous boats with zero human contact will happen in the near future. There are too many variables to consider, but the Coast Guard’s cruisers have set a technological precedent that won’t be forgotten, and will no doubt be pursued.

Edited by Rory J. Thompson
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