Autonomous Vessels

How self-driving boats and ships may shape the future

Forget self-driving cars, it may be self-driving vessels that will be here before you know it. Although there are only about 20 million vessels worldwide, a lot of money stands to be made (and saved) by automating ships and boats, so you can bet a lot of people are hard at work figuring out the issues. However, before we set our sights on autonomy, let’s investigate what it means, where it’ll be best applied, what the benefits and obstacles are, and how it looks when applied to recreational boating.

Autonomous Vessels and Smart Boats
Advanced Cockpit on a Sea Ray SLX-R 400e. Photo: C. Ryan McVinney.

Autonomous Doesn’t Mean Unmanned

An autonomous ship doesn’t have to be unmanned. It can navigate on its own but may have humans aboard for other functions or it can be unmanned and controlled remotely. Today, we’re already seeing stages of semi-autonomy with a high level of computer-assisted navigation and enhanced situational awareness. Vessels are equipped with cameras, sensors, radar, electronic charting, GPS, AIS and autopilot. Many ships, just like many aircraft can maneuver themselves successfully in some capacity. The main focus of actual autonomy so far has been on advanced perception and predictability, in other words, obstacle detection and collision avoidance.

It’s estimated that 75% – 95% of accidents in cargo shipping are caused by human error. Add to that non-cargo operations such research, oil exploration, dredging, surveying, and security vessels the number of m mishaps skyrockets, which is why so many are interested in the technology of autonomy.

Examples of Current & Potential Uses

Most of the current market is made up of vessels in military (drones), SAR operations, fire and first responders, ferries, workboats, patrol craft, pilot boats and tugs. Meanwhile, technology advances are coming from a variety of organizations both large and small. Mobility giant Rolls Royce demonstrated an autonomous ferry in Finland while startups like Sea Machines and Buffalo Automation are testing custom-installed enhanced perception products for a variety of boats.

Unmanned Sailing Drones

Also on the job is Autonomous Marine Systems, which developed unmanned sailing survey drones called Datamarans to collect ocean data for the offshore energy sector, and Metal Shark with their Sharktech ASView system that provides full remote control of onboard lighting, hailers, sirens, fire pumps, hydrographic survey and acoustic equipment, oceanographic or meteorological monitoring and a full range of cameras. With these kinds of capabilities, companies are already automating workboats that may be operated more safely and affordably with technology than with human involvement.

MIT’s Robot Boats or “Roboats”

In a completely different application, MIT researchers have designed vessels dubbed “roboats” that may be used for transport or as shape-shifting structures. These driverless boats can latch together or disconnect to make floating structures of different shapes and sizes that can serve as temporary bridges. With sensors, thrusters, cameras and controllers, they can carry cargo or create a temporary work platform. The city of Amsterdam is considering putting roboats to work in their 165 canals to collect trash or create bridges to reroute traffic during peak times. These roboats are expected to be 3D-printable so they can be manufactured quickly and affordably.

Pros & Cons to Autonomous Boats

There are many benefits of autonomous vessels starting with safety. Automated systems keep a constant watch, don’t get tired and aren’t prone to distractions or making mistakes. Autonomous systems increase predictability, productivity and safety since autonomous vessels can potentially venture into dangerous situations such as fire suppression without putting a human crew in harm’s way.

Automation also promises to save money by reducing crew costs. Although unmanned cargo ships are still only theoretical, imagine what they could look like if humans weren’t aboard. Designers could eliminate the galley, living quarters, climate control and other life support systems and that means more room for cargo. The bridge of the future may be a compilation of black box processors and maybe only one display for troubleshooting and maintenance by an administrator.

Of course, there are drawbacks to this new type of future as well. Firstly, we’re in no way ready for actual driverless ships. Remote control takes robust communications, redundancy in vessel systems, integrated logistics, trained personnel and a slew of new tools and command centers that don’t exist yet. Docking an autonomous ship means having slips with integrated sensors and knowledgeable operators to meet it. Who will pay for this infrastructure?

Also, it’ll take a multitude of sensors and much computing power to collect and process data to make a ship autonomous. This in turn is going to take a substantial amount of onboard energy and if the engine-driven alternators or generators fail, what’s the backup plan for a ship that now needs to be driven by a human who may or may not be aboard?

Two more issues that are hurdles are personnel and maintenance. In the autonomous scenario, a few well-trained professionals will replace many lower level employees. Will there be adequate job retraining and if so, who will pay for it? Also, when will vessel maintenance be done? Currently, much of it takes place during regular voyages by onboard crew. Taking a ship offline for service is expensive and may negate any cost savings from carrying more cargo.

There are also legal and regulatory issues to consider. Autonomous vessels will require a whole new set of laws to be developed for potential cases of collision, cybersecurity, piracy and more. Remote controlled systems can be hacked and ships can be boarded and potentially controlled by pirates. Not only will this cost the shipping companies, it could endanger port cities as vessels could become floating bombs. If there’s an accident, who pays for cleanup and who will insure this whole venture to begin with?

Finally, there’s the legal problem. Regulatory bodies are already investigating possible scenarios and the laws that will need to be developed to govern this new future. However, legal systems are methodical and slow by design so don’t expect sweeping changes any time soon and that could be the biggest drag on any progress made.

The obstacles mentioned above are real although not insurmountable. The sheer number of unknowns means that a crew of on-site decision makers will likely continue to be aboard for the near future. However, the push for computer-assisted navigation and semi-autonomy doesn’t show signs of relenting so what is very likely to happen in the interim is a reduction of key onboard personnel to a skeleton crew – maybe 2-5 humans per large ship.

Autonomy in Recreational Boating

Semi-autonomy isn’t strictly the domain of workboats and commercial shipping. In fact, great strides have been made in recreational boating to make navigation easier and safer and to enhance the skipper’s confidence and everyone’s experience.

Advances have been significant in onboard communications, camera imaging, dynamic positioning systems, sensors, and electromechanical actuators. Much of that information has been centralized into the multifunction display (MFD) and therefore placed at the captain’s fingertips. Autopilots have been integrated with engines and thrusters for easier close quarters maneuvering and joystick piloting for both inboard and outboard engines lets neophytes drive like pros. Systems such as Mercury’s Skyhook let the boat keep station in wind and current without any driver input, so waiting for a bridge to open or the fuel dock to clear is now automatic.

Most electronics manufacturers like Simrad, Garmin, Raymarine and Furuno have integrated engine manufacturers’ advanced remote diagnostics capabilities and have integrated software download functions so quite a lot can be done remotely already. This helps servicing dealers save time when troubleshooting. It also saves boat owners money when upgrading and unlocking electronics product features.

Digital switching products like C-Zone and EmpirBus have enabled monitoring and control of electrical and mechanical systems – some right from your phone. These programmable systems will turn on lights, pumps, climate control, refrigeration and more while the boater is still in the yacht club. Onboard power management has also improved shown by Sea Ray’s Fathom e-Power system on their new SLX-R 400e, which can power all its hungry electrical systems for six hours without needing to run the engines or a generator.

Engine builder, Volvo Penta, has been working on a self-docking system as has electronics manufacturer Raymarine. They both seek to minimize the impact of the most intimidating part of boating – getting in and out of the slip safely. Raymarine’s DockSense uses 3D stereo vision cameras to sense objects in close proximity and the data is crunched aboard so a boat can land with grace. Even sport boats are getting in the game of assisted docking. Tow boat builder, MasterCraft, introduced their award-winning DockStar system that added rudders to deflect prop wash beneath the boat, making steering in reverse more precise and intuitive.

These enhanced systems require robust and reliable connectivity so NMEA 2000 and ethernet backbones are a part of even the simplest of today’s boat electronic systems. WiFi has been brought aboard almost all boats. Meanwhile, satellite communications companies like KVH and Intellian have made their systems small, robust and affordable for use on yachts of ever smaller size and that is helping bring autonomy aspects onboard for offshore uses.

The final element in the development is artificial intelligence. Look for serious technological leaps to be made in vessel autonomy with the help of AI even in the recreational marine sector.

Of course, recreational marine doesn’t have the same drivers as commercial shipping. No one is looking for an unmanned recreational vessel since the point of boating is to be aboard and have fun. That said, boating is likely to become easier and more enjoyable as semi-autonomy builds so buckle in for an exciting future ahead.

Written by: Zuzana Prochazka

Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to and, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site,


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