Self-driving cars may not hit the road in earnest for many years — but autonomous boats could be just around the pier.
Spurred in part by the auto industry’s race to build driverless vehicles, marine innovators are building automated ferry boats for Amsterdam canals, cargo ships that can steer themselves through Norwegian fjords and remote-controlled ships to carry containers across the Atlantic and Pacific.
The first such autonomous ships could be in operation within three years.
One experimental work-boat spent this summer dodging tall ships and tankers in Boston Harbor, outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and emblazoned with the words “unmanned vessel” across its aluminum hull.
“We’re in full autonomy now,” said Jeff Gawrys, a marine technician for Boston startup Sea Machines Robotics, sitting at the helm as the boat floated through a harbor channel.
“Roger that,” computer scientist Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik said as he helped guide the ship from his laptop on a nearby dock.
The boat still needs human oversight. But some of the world’s biggest maritime firms have committed to designing ships that won’t need any captains or crews — at least not on board.
Militaries have been working on unmanned vessels for decades.
But a lot of commercial experimentation is happening in the centuries-old seaports of Scandinavia, where Rolls-Royce demonstrated a remote-controlled tugboat in Copenhagen this year.
Government-sanctioned testing areas have been established in Norway’s Trondheim Fjord and along Finland’s western coast.
There are still some major challenges ahead. Uncrewed vessels might be more vulnerable to piracy or even outright theft via remote hacking of a ship’s control systems.
Some autonomous vessels might win public trust faster than others; unmanned container ships filled with bananas might not raise the same concerns as oil tankers plying the waters near big cities or protected wilderness.
A decades-old international maritime safety treaty also requires that “all ships shall be sufficiently and efficiently manned.”
But the International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping, has begun a two-year review of the safety, security and environmental implications of autonomous ships.
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