Maersk to Trial Autonomous Vessel Firm's Technology

The new ice-class feeder Vistula Maersk (Seago / Maersk)

Published Apr 25, 2018 8:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

Maersk Lines has hired a Boston-based automation firm to install "perception and situational awareness technology" on a new class of container ships. The firm, Sea Machines Robotics, will provide technology similar to an advanced driver assistance system - the kind of high-end cruise control found in top-end luxury cars today. To "see" the traffic environment, it will use computer vision, LIDAR and perception software, and it will be deployed to "augment and upgrade transit operations." 

In a short mission statement, Sea Machines says that it develops autonomous vessel technology for commercial boats and ships, and it offers what it describes as the world’s first industrial-grade control system to provide autonomous and remote vessel control for workboats and other commercial marine vessels. Its latest product is capable of level three operator-in-the-loop autonomy - that is, the ability to navigate autonomously in many situations, with a human standing by to take over if needed. It is targeted primarily at survey, spill response, dredging and security/surveillance applications. 

In an interview with NBC last year, the firm's director of business development, Phil Bourque, said that the end goal for the technology was something similar to aviation: automated systems to reduce human error, but with a human behind the wheel. "It will all happen in steps, but we don't believe taking people [out of the picture] is necessarily a good thing," he said. "We're going to see systems take on more responsibilities but the human will still be there for added safety, just like with airplanes."

This approach appears to align with Maersk's bearish position on unmanned vessels. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Maersk CEO Soren Skou said that his firm already uses small crews on its giant boxships, and he doesn't see much advantage in taking the last few people off the vessel. Even if there were a commercial reason to do so and the technology were available, "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,” he said. “I don’t think it will be a driver of efficiency, not in my time.”

In a statement Wednesday, P. Michael A. Rodey, senior innovation manager at A.P. Moller-Maersk, confirmed that unmanned shipping is not the objective for its partnership with Sea Machines. “For this containership situational awareness program, we aim to prove the technology increases our safety, efficiency, and reliability. Autonomous vessels are not an end goal for Maersk nor is unmanned vessels, what is more of interest is the technology along the journey and the value it brings," he said. 

The project will have Sea Machines install its equipment on Maersk's new "Winter Palace" ice-class vessels. Maersk recently ordered seven 3,500 TEU ice-class feeders for service in the Baltic Sea under its Seago Line brand, and the first entered service earlier this month.