Will the future of autonomous ships enable them to mimic humans?

Posted on 4 Oct 2018 by Maddy White

What if the entire maritime operation - every boat on every body of water - could connect across one system? A system so advanced that it might be impossible to tell the difference between human and AI-crews. Is that the future of the maritime industry?

Autonomous ships could be the future for the maritime industry - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Autonomous ships could be the future for the maritime industry – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

“It should be like a telephone,” Alex Raymond, PHD student at the University of Cambridge says.

“You don’t need a specific telephone to call another, and so you shouldn’t need a specific technology to interact with robots, it should be a standardised process.”

Raymond is talking about autonomous ships.

Ships that move and can communicate with each other, interpret communications from humans and then respond as if one. He fervently believes this is the future of the maritime industry.

He has been awarded one of 12 Industrial Fellowships from The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.

Given to young research scientists and engineers to enable them to impact on industry and wider society, doing so by accelerating the development and commercialisation of new technologies.

What is the Industrial Fellowship?

These Industrial Fellowships recognise the best research projects that could advance British industry.

They provide graduates with up to £80,000 each to complete their doctoral studies, enabling them to develop innovative technologies with commercial potential in collaboration with an industrial partner and academic institution.

The projects are funded for up to three years, and will ideally lead to a patent or substantial business development.

Get exclusive insights into the future of UK manufacturing here!

At present, autonomous boats cannot listen, interpret and respond to radio signals sent by humans.

Raymond explains: “What I want to do is create a technology that will allow these boats to listen to the radio messages being sent. They need to translate, broadcast and interpret relevant messages.”

Autonomous cars, drones and other vehicles all currently exist and an increasing amount of discussions and tests surround AVs. The reason for this? They can reduce risk, improve efficiency and decrease workload.

“If you send an autonomous boat to the middle of the ocean for three months, you don’t need to replace crews, you just send the robot. It would be so much safer; it is one of the major selling points of autonomous ships,” Raymond says.

Autonomy is a fundamental step for ships, and realistically all vehicles

A standardised system that works like a telephone, and can interpret and respond exactly as a human could be incredibly effective.

Raymond whose industrial partner is L3 ASV, a world leader in maritime autonomy technology, says of the project’s strategy: “We are going to create some synthetic environments first, and then we are going to create a test centre, where we can send messages and see how the boats react. Then once the technology is mature enough, we can fit those into the boats.”

He adds: “It is still in its early stages. In about three to four years time, we should have a working prototype.”

The project will however need to prove that it is safer than the human workforce, that it can introduce and implement this concept.

“The good thing about robots is that they can process enormous amounts of information, the more information we programme them with, the more aware these robots will become,” he says.

It is exciting, essential, but also daunting to think that autonomy could play such a big role in the future of maritime operations.

A connected network that can encompass all types of ships, a network where they can communicate easily, effectively and in such an advanced manner that it is impossible to tell that they are not human.

Case study: Dyson

Dyson is now focusing on entering the electric vehicle space - image courtesy of Dyson.
Dyson is now focusing on entering the electric vehicle space – image courtesy of Dyson.

Electric appliance manufacturer, Dyson, is investing in autonomous and electric vehicles.

The company released plans last month surrounding a redevelopment of an airfield in Wiltshire as a research facility for autonomous and electric vehicles.

The Hullavington site could reportedly house up to 2,000 employees, as Dyson propose to build over 10 miles of vehicle test tracks for both EVs and AVs.

These tracks could include specific routes tailored to assessing AVs, such as their handling ability, off-road capabilities and how self-driving vehicles could tackle obstacles such as steep gradients or crowded and narrow roads.

This announcement comes after the company trademarked the term “Digital Motor” in the European market, as it prepares to launch the first of several new electric vehicles.