We Rode in the Automated Boats That Could Revolutionize Shipping

Autonomous "roboats" will be able to avoid collisions and find new, more efficient routes through the high seas.

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Dec 4 2018, 7:42pm

This video was created with GEICO.

Extensive research has gone into making cars, trucks, and farms autonomous—basically all the ways that we produce and transport goods around the world. Now, make way for the autonomous boats.

In a new documentary by Motherboard and the first episode of ETA, Sea Machines and Robotics demonstrates the ability of its “roboats” to identify other boats, avoid collisions, and analyze the sea to maximize the efficiency of its new autonomous vessel.

“I think it surprises folks to find out that autonomous vessels are actually here now,” Chris Sotzing, the director of Engineering at Sea Machines and Robotics, told Motherboard. “This technology is not science fiction. It looks like it sometimes, but it’s here, ready to go.”

Sotzing said that introducing autonomous boats to shipping, ferries, and harbors around the world could help protect the safety of navigators, as the boats may one day be better able to avoid collisions than human captains. Also, by automatically finding more efficient routes (which could save fuel costs), the price for consumer goods that rely on shipping could decrease. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, approximately 90 percent of goods sold around the world rely on the shipping industry.

Lauren Lamm, the lead of marine vessel testing for Sea Machines and Robotics, told Motherboard that autonomous boat technology could also be applied to oil spill clean ups by having a mothership boat and an autonomous boat work together.

“They could stay the same distance off each other, and they could drag an oil boom and clean up the spill,” Lamm said. “You wouldn't need to stop as much. You wouldn’t need to switch crews, and it would be a lot more efficient and productive.”

Although the maritime industry can be slow to change, according to Lamm, the potential positive impacts of autonomy to the industry should outweigh those concerns.

“Applying collision avoidance, I mean it’s something that mariners do every day,” Lamm said. “It’s just one less thing that’s completely in the hands of the navigator. I don’t think it’s meant to be a replacement of anybody, I think it’s more supplemental than anything else. It’s just increasing the safety, and that’s all there is to it.”