Autonomous Cargo Ship

Autonomous Cargo Ship

A fully autonomous AI-powered Japanese cargo ship is the “world’s first” to complete a 500-mile ocean trip

It seems the most obvious place for autonomous navigation to happen – the wide-open oceans. Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered autonomous vessels are making waves. In mid-May, the 750-ton Japanese cargo ship, Suzaka, became the “world’s first” autonomous commercial cargo ship to successfully complete a near-500-mile voyage in the congested waters of Tokyo Bay, traveling without human intervention for 99% of the trip. It successfully dodged hundreds of ships and maneuvered congested Japanese ports and coasts, which at times rivaled the worst of Mumbai road traffic. 

Image:Suzaka – the autonomous cargo ship

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The vessel was powered by Orca AI, whose software helped the ship avoid hundreds of collisions autonomously. Founded in 2018, the Israeli technology company, Orca AI provides intelligent navigation solutions, that helps prevent collisions and save lives. It claims to ensure safety in waterways and deep waters by reducing human-caused errors through intelligent automated vessels.

Orca AI’s algorithms were powered by AI and deep learning and were trained on data collected from Suzaka for over a year prior to the voyage. This helped the software identify targets in the complex Japanese shoreline environment. The real-time data from the autonomous cargo ship’s cameras were monitored at the fleet operations center in Tokyo hundreds of miles away.

A glitch hits another vessel

Meanwhile, another ship – the research vessel Mayflower Autonomous Ship – ran into technical challenges in its second attempt to become the largest unmanned vessel to navigate across the Atlantic. A mechanical issue doomed the first attempt to cross the Atlantic in June 2021. The Mayflower had completed 11% of its crossing on the first trip when three days out power levels and speed fell. 

Measuring 50 feet in length and weighing five tons, the craft was developed at a cost of more than $1 million in a research partnership involving the University of Plymouth, IBM, autonomous vessel specialists MSubs, and charity ProMare.Taking more than four years to develop, the goal of the project was to collect ocean research data during the crossing and demonstrate the emerging capabilities of AI to navigate vessels.

AI ranks & responds to collision potential

Orca AI technology is a combination of high resolution and thermal cameras to detect hidden objects under the sea, continuous data monitoring using an AI model to rank every passing ship according to its collision potential, and responding proactively to avoid hitting each other. Its systems also monitors shallow waters to avoid grounding. The company claims that its technology helps the captain and his navigation crew get an accurate view of the environment in real-time, and make “life-altering decisions.”

The future of fully autonomous ships

Headquartered in Israel, Orca AI looks to bridge sea-bound ships to the shore with 24/7 insights to ensure shipping companies keep their cargo safe and efficient at all times while providing the technology to bring autonomous cargo ships to reality. Orca AI last September, signed a partnership with Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK Line) to test its safety system for autonomous ships. Orca AI’s Automatic Ship Target Recognition System had been installed on an NYK ship as a research trial to support the advancement of autonomous sea travel. Together, these two companies are Designing the Future of Full Autonomous Ships (DFFAS).

Proving sceptics wrong

Even as recently as in 2018, the shipping industry was sceptical of autonomous ships. In February that year, the then CEO of Maersk, Soren Skou, told Bloomberg that autonomous containerships without humans on board are unlikely to operate in his lifetime. In an interview about how the company would drive efficiency, the leader of the world’s biggest container shipping company said there was little to gain by reducing the size of crews on containerships. During the interview, Skou had said: “Even if the technology advances, I don’t expect we will be allowed to sail around with 400-meter-long container ships, weighing 200,000 tonnes without any human beings on board. “I don’t think it will be a driver of efficiency, not in my time.”

AI operating as a human watchkeeper

Nevertheless, it now seems that the future of cargo vessels will be autonomous. During Suzaka’s500-mile voyage, the autonomous cargo ship performed 107 collision avoidance maneuvers without the help of a human. The program director suggests that Suzaka avoided between 400-500 other vessels on the water during its outbound trip alone. According to Orca AI, its safety navigation system was set up on the cargo ship to operate as a “human watchkeeper,” providing real-time detection, tracking, classification, and range estimation on eighteen onboard cameras, combined to provide a 360° view, day and night. 

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