How Autonomous Boats Could Help Save the Environment

All robots aboard

  • An AI-guided ship has crossed the Atlantic ocean.
  • The growing number of boats that use AI tools for guidance could transform ocean shipping and transportation. 
  • The AI-guided ship developed by IBM and its partners was designed to make split-second decisions based on conditions and to adhere to maritime law.
AI-guided autonomous ship by IBM.


Your gadgets could soon arrive from faraway manufacturers on cargo ships that lack a captain or crew.  

A self-piloted ship designed to recreate the Mayflower's journey across the Atlantic 400 years ago has crossed the ocean. It's part of a growing number of boats that use artificial intelligence (AI) to guide themselves in a trend that could make ocean shipping and transportation greener and more efficient. 

"From a sustainability perspective, having an unmanned vessel allows for slower, more fuel-efficient routes," Marc Taylor, a logistics specialist at TheoremOne, an innovation and engineering company, told Lifewire in an email interview. "The onboard AI technology can analyze real-time sea conditions to allow the engine to operate in the most efficient way."

‘Aye, Aye’, AI 

In a voyage lasting 40 days across 3,500 miles at sea, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship arrived in North America in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on June 5. On board the ship, there are 6 AI-powered cameras and more than 30 sensors, which help the AI Captain to interpret and analyze sea conditions. 

The Mayflower, developed by IBM and its partners, is designed to adhere to maritime law while making crucial split-second decisions, like rerouting itself around hazards or marine animals, without human interaction or intervention.

"The AI Captain has learned from data, postulates alternative choices, assesses and optimizes decisions, manages risk, and refines its knowledge through feedback, all while maintaining the highest ethical standards—which is similar to how machine learning is applied across industries like transportation, financial services, and healthcare," Rob High, IBM's chief technology officer of networking and edge computing, wrote in a blog post. "And furthermore, there's a transparent record of the AI Captain's decision-making process that can help us humans understand why the captain made certain decisions… transparency that is all too important in these heavily regulated industries." 

No Crew, No Fuss

The Mayflower isn't the only autonomous ship making news. An autonomous commercial cargo ship recently completed a 500-mile voyage in the busy water of Tokyo Bay. The 750-gross-ton vessel was powered by Orca AI, whose software helped the ship avoid hundreds of collisions autonomously.

The container ship Suzaku demonstrated for the first time the use of a comprehensive, fully autonomous navigation system, for a container ship operating in a congested sea area, according to the consortium of companies that carried out the test. About 500 ships pass through Tokyo Bay each day. 

A slower route may provide more time for the unloading of ships at ports and thus reduce idle time.

"We have created fully automated navigation by designing and demonstrating completely new systems through open innovation and taking into account the perspectives of ship operators," Koichi Akamine, the president of Japan Marine Science, said in the news release. "I am confident that this successful demonstration represents a major step forward toward the practical implementation of fully automated navigation."

More ominously, a Chinese company has tested an AI-powered uncrewed ship that could be used for military purposes. Last year, Yunzhou Tech showed off six high-speed crewless vessels designed to "quickly intercept, besiege and expel" seagoing targets. 

The US Navy is also testing experimental crewless surface vessels. The AI-guided ships are heading to Hawaii this summer for exercises. "The implementation of unmanned systems will increase decision speed and lethality to enhance our warfighting advantage," Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener said in a statement

Commercial autonomous ships could help compensate for a growing crew member shortage. The shipping industry faces an expected shortfall of about 150,000 seagoing officers by 2025

People leaning on the rail of a ship using smartphones.

Westend61 / Getty Images

"Autonomous ships allow for remote management of vessels, exposing prospective employees to new, interesting technology stacks and releasing the burden of having to be physically on a ship," Taylor said. "Not only could autonomous ships alleviate the talent shortage issue, but they could also help to create a safer industry, with the majority of incidents occurring due to human error."

Self-guided ships could also prove to be greener. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated backlogs in ports, and congestion contributes to carbon emissions as ships sit idle with their engines ticking over, Taylor said. "A slower route may provide more time for the unloading of ships at ports and thus reduce idle time," he added. 

Taylor said that in the future, ships would see an increase in AI technology and a gradual decrease in human interaction. 

"Without having to consider the human factor, there are also more opportunities for ships to be redirected to other ports at times of high congestion, further reducing idle times and, in turn, emissions," he added. 

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