Get Ready for Bots Running Boats!

metamorworks /
metamorworks /

For centuries now, Hollywood has made their living propagating the idea that robots will one day do everything for us. From cheesy outer space movies in the 1960s that also often propagated the idea that we were not alone, and in fact, there was huge green (nobody ever said why they are green either) aliens that were ready to kill us. Yet in these films, the robots would save us all.

Inevitably, these films have evolved. In the 1980s, movies like Terminator made us all afraid of unstoppable robots that could shape-shift and that would stop at nothing to destroy us all. Other futuristic franchises like Robocop would only underscore that message, and even Speed 2 would joke about it.

Yet, in 2023, we are going full steam ahead, with the Yara Birkeland leading the way via the fjords in southern Norway. Currently with Captain Svend Ødegård at the helm, the ship and its 5-man crew are trying to make testing for the future of ships much easier. “We are taking big steps towards autonomy. There’s a lot of installed technology there, that is not on existing ships.”

The biggest part of that technology is the sensors that allow for navigation that will one day guide the Yara Birkeland. These radars and cameras will feed information into an artificial intelligence program that will detect, classify, and make instant determinations about waterborne objects and locations. “We have situational awareness – cameras on the side, front, and stern of the ship. It can decide whether to change its path because something is in the way.”

Currently, the ship is sailing on a 50-mile mission to a dry-land remote operations center where the ship will undergo testing with multiple ships simultaneously. In this instance, humans will be able to interfere if need be by changing speed and course heading. Sinikka Hartonen, Secretary General of One Sea Association, likes the way they are challenging the status quo by using predictable trips to calibrate equipment. “Vessels which operate along short, regular and fixed routes offer good opportunities to introduce autonomous ship technologies.”

Marius Tannum, an Associate Professor of Applied Autonomy at the University of South-Eastern Norway is another very excited voice for the idea of bringing robotics into shipping.

“The Yara Birkeland project and the Asko barge project are pushing the technology out into the real world, and not just in research labs like we have been doing for many years. Since this is very new technology and not tested in real life that much, we need this transitional period with crew on board. Then gradually, we can trust the autonomy to do more.”

However, Professor Tannum cautions people from being too excited about the technology crossing the globe consistently any time soon. “First the legal challenges must be resolved. And then the ships need robust energy and propulsion systems that require very little maintenance.”

While these are terrific points for them to make, there is a lot to be said about keeping humans in charge of these situations. For years now videos of rogue waves have been shown from across the globe, and are one of the biggest problems with robot ships. These massive changes in the water are things a ship won’t see through its camera hundreds of yards out in a bad storm, and no sensor can predict with enough warning to do anything.

Meanwhile, a seasoned captain could keep the ship from taking on more water than necessary, listing too far to one side, or preventing the cargo from being allowed to dangerously shift. Thus, saving the cargo and the multi-million dollar ship from becoming the next coral reef sanctuary at the bottom of the sea.

Given the amount of control, we as humans are already giving computers, perhaps at least one piece of technology can stop short of transforming into an automated system. At this rate, there will be little to no completely human jobs left by 2045, and nothing would be more embarrassing for the human race than pricing ourselves right out of our jobs.