Weekly Brief: AI Making Inroads Into Maritime Industry via Startups

Cargo ship in the harbor at sunset. Gdansk, Poland.

The traditional maritime industry is about to be disrupted by marine technology startups incorporating AI, robotics and other new technology that have the potential to lower costs and improve outcomes. Here is a review of selected marine technology startups who represent this new wave of activity and how some are incorporating AI into their solutions.

Sea Machines Robotics, Inc. Working on Remote Boats

Sea Machines Robotics of Boston develops computer systems for work boats that makes them either completely autonomous or controlled remotely. The company recently bought a used Coast Guard boat and converted it for use as an autonomous boat. They painted it yellow, and added the words “Unmanned Vessel’ in big, red letters on the side.  They outfitted it with cameras on the stern and bow, and added a radar system and digital GPS unit to relay more information about the vehicle’s surroundings.

Boston has become a hub for marine technology startups focused on smaller vehicles, with companies like Sea Machines building their own system for boats, diving drones and other marine robots, according to a recent account in Bloomberg Businessweek. Big shipping companies including Rolls-Royce Holdings, mining company BHP Billiton and fertilizer producer Yara International have all announced plans to use driverless ships for large-scale ocean transport.

Michael Benjamin, an MIT researcher, runs the university’s academic program on marine autonomy. He helps connect engineers with startups and runs an open source software project important to many autonomous marine vehicles. The software project, initially funded by the Office of Naval Research, enables a computer to take over a boat’s navigation and control system.The software, called MOOS-IvP, creates a common vocabulary for a wide range of marine vehicles. Water creates a different set of boundaries than face self-driving cars, which operate on a structured road system. While traversing the water, “The number of unique possible situations that you can bump into is enormous,” Benjamin told Bloomberg.

Underwater robots represent a larger market today than autonomous boats. Sales of unmanned underwater vehicles are expected to hit $4.6 billion in 2020, more than double the 2015 total, according to ABI Research. The biggest customer is the military.

Sea Machines CEO Michael John envisions teams of autonomous vessels working in concert, potentially replacing or supplementing manned tugboats to guide large container ships into harbors, for instance.

For more information, go to Sea-Machines.com.

SailRouter Aims to Reduce Merchant Ship Fuel Consumption

SailRouter concentrates on helping merchant ships reduce fuel consumption. Its WeatherRouter program calculates the optimum route through waves and sea current to optimize fuel consumption and ship hydrodynamics, the relationship between ship speed and waves. A motion sensor gathers ship motion data to refine performance relative to wave direction and height. The company’s SailRouter program gathers data during navigation for analysis to improve ship hydrodynamics. Onboard computers communicate with servers on shore to process the information.

SailRouter founder Dino Mandić was recently quoted in Maritime, a publication of KNect 365, an event organization, describing the challenges of a new technology marine startup. “From my experience, a maritime startup is probably the most difficult type of startup because the maritime industry is a quite conservative sector where end users (crew members, office staff) don’t like to change how they do their regular business.”

Based on observations he made around shipyards while growing up in Split, Croatia, he recognized a problem for seafarers who were being asked to use different software for weather and routing, that required them to input much of the data. He wanted to automate some of the data collection. “We decided to use our expertise in machine learning and optimization to develop a new product which will be able to recognize sea waves during navigation by using a small and easy to install motion sensor,” he stated.

For more information, go to SailRouter.com.

Care4C Tracks Physical Health of Boat Crews

Care4C is focused on overseeing the health of seafaring boat crews. The company was founded by a team combining expertise in the shipping industry, IT, big data analytics and healthcare. Care4C collaborates with  ship owners, corporations, healthcare providers, insurance companies and a team of cardiologists and neurologists.

Founder Marc Van Mael said Care4C had a head start by virtue of the expertise of its founders. “We started with a thorough understanding of the industry, cooperating closely, right from the conceptual and POC [proof of concept] phase with a number of top tier ship owners and stakeholders who have supported and contributed to the project.” he stated in the Maritime article. “Once we mapped out the needs and peculiarities of the industry the project was conceived as a hi tech medical start up for the marine industry.”

“We think we are quite unique in our offering and cannot see anyone active at our level of development right now in shipping,”stated Van Mael. “There is obviously good quality telemedicine available today but we are the only ones monitoring a number of vital cardiovascular and sleep related data on a semi–continuous and medically-validated basis. Our data is collected with nonintrusive clinical sensors which allow for high quality predictive analysis and thus proactive risk management.”

“We have colleagues in onshore Mhealth technology showing a keen interest in what we have developed so far. The shipping-related complexities we had to solve and the global reach opens many further opportunities for cooperation with other “shore based” applications.”

For more information, go to Care4C.com.

Marine Spill Response Corp., Autonomous Marine Systems

A test partner of Sea Machines is Marine Spill Response Corp. of Herndon, Va., a non-profit funded by oil companies. The organization uses a 210-foot ship paired with a 32-foot boat to drag oil-collecting gear through polluted waters. Staffing the 32-foot boat in choppy waters at night is dangerous, so self-driving boats are seen as a potential alternative. Judith Roos, a vice president for MRC, said the testing is putting the idea through its paces before any purchase commitments are made.

Another Boston startup, Autonomous Marine Systems, Inc. has been sending boats some 10 miles out to sea and leaving them alone for weeks at a time. The AMS vehicles are designed to operate for long stretches, gathering data for wind farms and oil fields, for example. AMS CEO Ravi Paintal said the company also uses the open source software rooted at MIT. “When your boat can operate for 30 days out in the ocean environment, you’ll be in the running for a commercial contract,” he told Bloomberg.

ABI Research Surveyed 455 Companies on Tech Plans

Within the context of the overall transportation industry, ABI Research found in a recent survey of 455 US-based companies that 30% planned to introduce robotics into their business operations within the next year, and 22% were actively assessing the technology.

Lack of familiarity with early-stage technology including blockchain, autonomous vehicles and AI was seen as holding back potential adoption.

Transportation providers may view intelligent transportation technologies as solutions to evolve their existing transportation operations versus opportunities for developing new revenue streams & business models,” says Susan Beardslee, Senior Analyst at ABI Research. “These players also show concern for legacy systems integration and comprehension of the complexity/fragmentation of their supply chain.”

AI is very early stage with the survey respondents, with only 4% for instance ranking navigation and guidance systems as a priority.

  • By John P. Desmond, AI Trends Editor