Bridges, cargo and navigation: the hurdles that autonomous ships face

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It looks like a small apartment – TV, couch, shower corner, refrigerator, washing machine, bed. Outside the door there is a table and benches, surrounded by flower pots. The view from the window, however, is unusual because the landscape moves past the apartment. And behind the “terrace” there is a huge mountain of junk – a good thousand tons. Eberhard Butenhof lives with his wife and a young trainee captain on a barge. His job could soon be taken over by a machine.

The workplace is not the most attractive: it has been for years the inland waterway associations complain about a lack of trainees. Almost 7,000 ships travel daily on the Rhine alone – this corresponds to a carrying capacity of ten million tons, which otherwise would have to be transported in trucks and trains. The narrower of the 7,476 kilometers of inland waterways in Germany have so far been largely unused. It is simply too difficult and expensive to find staff who can only move small quantities of goods.

That should now change – with robot ships. The Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine already has 30 European research projectswho deal with autonomous ships for inland navigation. The autonomous boats could move more transports to the water and so relieve the congested streets in the metropolises a little.

One of the projects is “A-Swarm”. It stands for “Autonomous Electric Shipping on Waterways in Metropolitan Regions”. The shipbuilding research institute Potsdam and the Technical University of Berlin are also involved. The prototype of this autonomous inland waterway vessel is mainly made of aluminum – it is six meters long and two and a half meters wide. It is currently doing test drives on the Westhafen Canal and the Berlin Spandauer Schifffahrtskanal, among others, but so far with remote control. Step by step, the boat should now become more independent. The Federal Ministry of Economics is funding the project with 4.2 million euros.

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Navigation is one of the challenges. While the classic drones have to struggle with the wind in the air, the boat also has to deal with the current. It can’t just stop in front of an obstacle – it just keeps going. The system must also take into account the distribution of the load at all times. In addition, bridges interfere with the GPS signal, so that the boats need additional sensors such as lidar or radar. Similar to the development of self-driving cars, the researchers are now concerned with collecting as much data as possible about obstacles in the test drives: larger rubbish, branches, animals, swimmers or other boats.

The researchers can imagine that such boats support parcel services, for example. Especially during the pandemic, parcel service providers can hardly keep up with deliveries – not least, they also contribute to inner-city traffic. The logistics companies are experimenting with delivery drones, but they can only carry very small packages. Boats could also travel in series in the smaller canals and thus carry up to two tons of freight as a fleet. If the appropriate infrastructure is built, they could hand over their cargo to delivery vehicles at various points in the city.

Autonomous boats are also currently running in Amsterdam as a test – the roboats. These are ferries that are being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), among others. The ferry can carry six people and thus act as a taxi or tour bus, or – after conversion – also take various loads. One application that the researchers have in mind would be to remove bulky waste from cities. Since the ferry is relatively quiet, it could also do this at night when the waterways are empty anyway.

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The black and gray roboats look futuristic and their ferry function is somewhat reminiscent of the cars in amusement park rides. Passengers can take a seat on two opposite seats. Hidden under them in the boat is a battery the size of a small chest, which can be used for up to ten hours and can be charged wirelessly.

MIT Senseable City Lab

The passengers can give the boat a destination. The boat then uses GPS to decide a safe route while scanning the area to avoid collisions with bridges, piers and other boats. It also uses lidar technology and a number of cameras that offer a 360-degree view. The control algorithms continuously give instructions for the “thruster” propellers that keep the boat moving. The system takes into account the number of people on board. A special feature of this boat is that it can team up with other roboats in such a way that it would form a spontaneous bridge over a river. To do this, it closes the seating area with a roof, over which passers-by can safely walk.

There are other test ships: looks even more futuristic the autoship – a project by the Norwegian shipping company Kongsberg Maritime and the Scottish University of Strathclyde, among others. As a test, it is driving around the large EU port of Antwerp in the Flemish region and is intended to transport goods on pallets or roll containers. That Test ship “Horst” from the company Fähre Maul, which runs between Oestrich-Winkel and Ingelheim near Mainz, navigates through a particularly challenging area with narrow passages, sandbanks and strong currents as part of the AKOON research project.

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More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

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So far, all systems have been running on test tracks and can, if necessary, be taken over by remote control. The researchers do not anticipate real deployments for ten years at the earliest. Then the captains have to get used to apartments in which the window always shows the same landscape.


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