Self-Driving Cars, Planes and now Boats?

November 15, 2017

As companies such as Tesla and Uber continue to make progress in their plans to take over the automation industry with unmanned vehicles, we're living in a world where everything is becoming more automated. For instance, although trains have been semi-automated since the 1960s, recent technological developments have led to driverless train, as seen in Kobe, Japan and Lille, France.

The trend for driverless transportation vehicle is on the rise, and this includes marine vehicles such as boats. This has led to a rise of technology startups as well as the emergence of robotics training curriculums that incorporates marine technology.

The levels of automation

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has created a descriptive six-tier automation ranking system, ranging from full human control to no human control at all. In the first three tiers, humans must remain fully alert and monitor the driving environment, even with partial automation. In levels three to six, an automated system is responsible for monitoring the environment. The aim is for most modes of transportation to eventually operate at this higher level, enabling more efficiency and reducing human error.

Here is a breakdown of those six levels:

Level 0
Everything is manual and a human must be in control of everything at all times.

Level 1
Some level of driver assistance is available in the form of either steering automation or acceleration/deceleration automation.

Level 2
Partial automation is available in that both the steering and acceleration/deceleration can be handled by one or more driver assistance systems.

Level 3
This is a state of conditional automation that still requires a degree of human intervention. While an automated system may be fully responsible for dynamic driving, given the appropriate road and environmental conditions, a human must remain alert enough to intervene upon request. Most companies are opting to skip this level, citing the fact that it could be dangerous to have drivers suddenly jump behind the wheel if they haven't been paying proper attention to driving conditions the entire time the car is in operation.

Level 4
Currently, even the most sophisticated automated vehicles have yet to reach this level. That is not to say the day will not arrive soon. Ford and Volvo have made commitments to release cars with Level 4 autonomy by 2021, bypassing Level 3 altogether. Level 4 automation means no human intervention is required, as the technology is designed such that the vehicle will stop itself in the event of failure. Level 4 is considered 'near-automation', as the technology will be limited to certain environmental use-cases, or the vehicle's "operational design domain (ODD)."

Level 5
This is the highest level of automation, as there is no human intervention involved regardless of the environmental and road conditions. A Level 5 vehicle should be able to fully perform on its own, whether it's on a dirt road in a forest or a busy urban intersection.

Marine automation

Navigation is one of the biggest challenges for automating vehicles and bringing them beyond the first three stages of the SAE ranking system. For instance, when designing self-driving cars, a number of factors like traffic, signage, and pedestrians need to be considered. While there are less obstacles to consider when navigating in water, engineers and designers are still faced with many challenges when it comes to automating boats.

The city of Boston is taking up this challenge and is establishing itself as a marine autonomy hub. Professionals from the military to MIT to local startups jumping in on bringing traction to this industry.

Startups like Sea Machines and Autonomous Marine Systems Inc. have been working on everything from autonomous tugs to unmanned vessels that can stay out at sea for up to 20 days at a time. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Professor Michael Benjamin is the mind behind MOOS-Iv, an open-source software funded by the non-profit Battelle Memorial Institute, and the US office for Naval Research. With MOOS-IvP, as in the case of many open-source projects, developers and engineers from anywhere in the world can jump in and make use of existing tools and lingo.

Careers in marine automation

Though marine automation may seem like somewhat of a niche field, it’s an industry that is set to grow in the coming years. The entire automation industry as a whole is already experiencing a need for more talent in order for growth to continue in the right direction. In fact, sales Indeed, sales of underwater robots are forecasted to reach $4.5 billion by 2020.

For those lucky enough to be living in the Boston area, Michael Benjamin himself often takes the time to direct engineers towards the right jobs in any one of the city’s new marine automation startups. However, Boston isn’t the only starting place for those interested in this burgeoning field.

Companies such as the Canadian owned and operated BCS automation has been heavily involved in the marine industry for years, providing automated solutions to many industry challenges. Companies such as Praxis Automation Technology in the Netherlands have also been investing in marine automation. For skilled professionals with the appropriate robotics training and experience with industrial control systems, a career in marine automation is only a few steps away.

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