When the oceangoing tugboat Nellie Bly sets sail from the German port of Hamburg on Thursday, the crew should have plenty of time to admire the scenery. That’s because the vessel will be under the control of computers, backed up by human sailors 3,600 miles away.
The voyage of the Bly will be the most dramatic test yet for Boston-based Sea Machines, a startup company that aims to automate global shipping by adding semi-autonomous systems like those found on commercial airplanes or on today’s most advanced cars.
“We are bringing forward a revolution in navigation,” said chief executive Michael Johnson. “On vessels today, more than 99 percent of manual effort is very routine. It’s effort that should be shifted over to intelligent systems.”
Sea Machines isn’t looking to remove all crew members from the world’s cargo ships. “They have a lot of machinery that needs care and maintenance,” Johnson said. For instance, tending the engines will still require human skill and dexterity. Besides, international regulations require that each ship be “manned with qualified, certified, and medically fit seafarers.”
Instead, the goal is to make shipping safer. According to the German insurance company Allianz, 49 merchant ships sank worldwide in 2020, or roughly four per month. And there were thousands of less-serious incidents. Johnson believes that automating these ships could lower the number of accidents by reducing human error. He compared it with the automation of aircraft, which has helped make flying so safe that there hasn’t been a fatal US commercial air crash since 2009.
Still, there’s plenty of skepticism about the future of autonomous shipping. Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has worked with Amsterdam officials on a plan to deploy self-driving boats in that city’s canals. Ratti said that autonomy is well suited to small boats traveling over relatively short distances. But he questioned its benefits for long-range shipping, where having human captains on board adds little to the ship’s total operating cost. “For a big ship, I don’t see a huge advantage,” Ratti said.
Joe Pivarunas, founder of the tech research firm Nanalyze, said that there are simpler ways to make sea travel safer. For instance, ship-to-ship collisions could be sharply reduced by adopting intelligent collision-warning systems, a standard feature on the world’s commercial aircraft. “You don’t need autonomy to solve the safety issue,” Pivarunas said.
But Johnson said that an autonomous system will be far safer. “Proper collision avoidance requires autonomy and its ability to prioritize a multitude of sensor data streams in real time,” he said. “The movement towards autonomy isn’t just an important step but a necessary one.”
The Bly is named after a pioneering female journalist of the 19th century who traveled around the world in 72 days. On Sept. 30, the ship is set to begin a 1,000-mile circumnavigation of Denmark, with stops at multiple ports along the coast. It will carry a pair of captains who can take command just in case, and also shipping industry executives as observers. Their presence is a vital part of Sea Machines’ sales pitch. “It’s an industry that needs to see proof in many ways before they want to adopt new technologies,” Johnson said.
Most of the time, the Bly will be steered by on-board computers. “The autonomy system on board the vessel … provides all the continuous control of the system,” said Johnson. “The commanders are primarily monitoring it.”
But during the most challenging portions of the trip, people in a Boston control room will take control. The ship will send navigation data and high-resolution video images to the United States via a shore-based Danish 4G wireless network. The same cellular system will relay commands from human navigators when the need arises.
Sea Machines isn’t the only outfit trying to design self-navigating ships. In June, an autonomous ship set sail from the UK to retrace the original voyage of the Mayflower to Plymouth, Mass. But the ship was towed back to port after a mechanical breakdown. The ship’s sponsors plan a series of test cruises along the UK coast, and hope to make a second transatlantic attempt next spring.
And later this year, a small container ship called the Yara Birkeland, running entirely on batteries, is expected to begin making cargo runs between two towns on the coast of Norway.
Correction: A previous version of this story misplaced Sea Machines’ headquarters. They are based in Boston. The Globe regrets the error.