The Cusp

Can Self-Driving Ships Revolutionize Water Travel And Fix Supply Chains?

Cars aren’t the only vehicles set to have minds of their own.

Written by Tatyana Woodall
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The Cusp

Planes, trains, and automobiles (and, of course, boats) have evolved to ferry passengers to and fro, now serving as essential couriers for explorations that would have been too impractical to make on foot.

But these modes of transportation are about to get a radical makeover: Engineers are now designing machines that can operate human-free, which could transform commercial travel — especially as autonomous technologies begin to propagate by land, sea, and air.

This could lead to safer, more efficient cargo shipping — potentially slashing wait times for our precious packages — and may even offer militaries a competitive advantage on the seas. But at the moment, they’ve got plenty of progress to make.

The case against human error

Due to safety concerns, Tesla recalled over 300,000 vehicles with its Full Self-Driving feature.

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Autonomy isn’t just the next big thing — it’s already here. From today's self-driving cars to ships that employ sensors and AI systems on the waves, this tech could soon become the norm. Already, small-scale autonomous systems such as unmanned aerial vehicles and food delivery robots woosh through the skies and roll across sidewalks.

Current autonomous systems aren’t necessarily whizzes at perceiving obstacles or overcoming navigation challenges — Tesla’s Full Self-Driving feature, which despite the name requires some human assistance, doesn’t always follow speed limits and can even plow through intersections.

But if engineers can work out the kinks, these features may be more reliable than their human counterparts. We experience complex emotions like stress, fatigue, boredom, and fear; any number of these things might slow our decision-making or reaction times in a situation that demands our utmost attention.

Unlike us mere humans, autonomous systems could tackle all these challenges, all the while increasing overall productivity. But they aren’t quite there yet.

For now, these technologies don’t have the best track record. For instance, Tesla recalled over 300,000 vehicles with its Full-Self Driving system because it can lead to crashes. Along with Tesla’s driver assistance system called Autopilot, FSD has already caused a number of dangerous incidents on the roads. There’s also a driver-assistance system set to become mandatory for new cars sold in Europe, which may misread signs or come with dangerous GPS inaccuracies.

These technologies don’t have the best track record.

Despite these concerns, plenty of companies — and even government agencies — are getting in on the action.

The United States Air Force, for instance, wants to harness automation and various types of AI to ramp up its aerial capabilities. Earlier this year, the branch announced they’d be working with the company Reliable Robotics to explore whether they can automate large, multi-engine jets, too.

Autonomous planes could make military missions safer, more efficient, and more flexible by requiring fewer human operators, David O'Brien, senior vice president of government solutions at Reliable Robotics, tells Inverse. With the Reliable Robotics system, a remote pilot would operate aircraft through all phases of flight, automating taxi, takeoff, and landing.

“Our solution will provide the Air Force with certifiable commercial hardware and software to solve its mission needs,” O’Brien says. But seamlessly integrating the tech into the National Airspace System is easier said than done, and at the moment, there’s no clear timeline for how far autonomy is from common use. At least in the skies, anyway.

Autonomy sets sail

The U.S. Navy is working on an autonomous ship prototype can drive itself for over 30 days.

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The seas are a different story: The U.S. Navy may see autonomy in the near future. The Navy recently got a hold of an autonomous ship prototype that can operate on its own for at least 30 days — a tool that could both make future missions and commercial maritime activities more efficient and even stretch the limits of what’s possible.

“There are several advantages associated with autonomous vessels,” Scott Savitz, a senior engineer at a national security think tank called the Rand Corporation, tells Inverse. On the sea, self-governing vessels can collect data for defense purposes and monitor the maritime environment for disasters like oil spills or other undersea phenomena like algae blooms.

While unmanned ships aren’t a new concept, the skyrocketing interest in artificial intelligence and robotics has heightened their demand in the maritime field. And as Savitz notes, self-sufficient vessels could cut the costs associated with human employees and limit casualties in combat. Ukraine’s government, for instance, has deployed uncrewed ships to strike Russian vessels, with some success.

It may reduce the number of people at risk.

But what about the cargo boats that bring us most of our daily knickknacks, from the stuff in our Amazon packets to the loads of fresh produce we pick up from grocery stores? To start out, some researchers think that some small cargo ships would benefit from autonomy because it may reduce the number of people at risk. After all, it’s a dangerous profession with threats like pirates, storms, and fires.

Commercial trade ships also account for a large number of sea accidents, such as collisions or route blockages — remember that infamous Suez Canal jam that backed up furniture orders and boosted oil prices? While these incidents could undoubtedly still happen, Savitz says, autonomous technologies may help limit them.

In other countries, companies are embracing self-driving shipping. Last year, the Japanese ferry ship Soleil became the first vessel to make a fully autonomous voyage, and the Norwegian container Yara Birkeland became the first electric autonomous container vessel.

Self-driving won’t run rampant

A food delivery robot sparked controversy when it drove through a crime scene.

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Still, trusting remote systems with all our dirty work may come with major issues.

While autonomous vessels can complete tasks that humans may find challenging, Savitz says that they struggle with finding solutions to unexpected obstacles. (A food delivery robot once sparked debate when it drove through a crime scene.) So in places where autonomous ships may have free reign to operate, they’ll still offer some navigational and mechanical risks.

All in all, these technologies will likely still need some measure of human oversight: If an autonomous vessel runs into a problem, the issue may not actually be able to be solved autonomously and may require human know-how, according to Savitz.

Experts also recommend rules to ensure this type of tech can safely work for — and alongside — humans.

Even if these technologies do come to bear, it’s unlikely the public will soon see any major change to their own lives, Savitz says. Automated cargo ships may allow consumers to get their packages a bit faster, but that may be about it. In essence, autonomous systems do have something unique to offer us, but they aren’t yet smooth sailing.

“There's a lot of regulation and a lot of challenges as these things start to become more mainstream,” Savitz says. “We may be able to reduce accident rates, we may be able to increase efficiency, but it will not be perfection, and there will be a learning curve.”

The Cusp is a weekly Inverse series that offers a sneak peek at the science and technology that could power our future.

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