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The Future Is Now: Unmanned and Autonomous Surface Vessels and Their Impact on the Maritime Industry

Benedict’s Maritime Bulletin

Once thought to be a mere concept on the distant horizon, Unmanned Surface Vessels (‘‘USVs’’) are garnering increasing attention in the maritime industry as a means to cut costs, increase efficiency, and enhance safety. While some view USVs as more akin to futuristic science fiction, in reality, unmanned vessels are far from a novel concept—Nikola Tesla envisioned maritime drones in his November 8, 1898 patent for ‘‘Method of and apparatus for controlling mechanism of moving vessels or vehicles.’’ More recently, unmanned and autonomous technology has been developed in multiple industries, in particular in the subsea sector.

Projections of practical implementation into the maritime surface sector have rapidly shifted from a mere concept decades away to the immediate future. Today, innovators are not only developing USV technology, but are also conducting on-the-water testing of USVs. As a result, the potential applications and benefits of unmanned technologies are driving investment and shaping the conversation of both regulators and the industry. The question is no longer if, but when. And the answer to when, in some regards, is ‘‘now.’’

As with unmanned technologies in other industries, USVs have the potential to provide enhanced safety and cost savings by removing the human element from certain operations. Generally, two options are currently being evaluated for operating vessels with unmanned technologies: (1) new purpose-built vessels, or (2) retro-fitting current vessels to operate to some level of autonomy. USVs may operate with various levels of autonomy, including remotely operated (by humans); partially autonomous vessels (with human input); or fully autonomous (using artificial intelligence decisionmaking). For the foreseeable future, while humans will remain in the operational loop for the majority of operations, long-term goals include transportation of cargo and passengers with fully autonomous vessels. Regardless of the approach to the construction or level of autonomy, unmanned vessels offer the possibility of advantages to the maritime industry. But the advantages will not come without addressing serious challenges.

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"The Future Is Now: Unmanned and Autonomous Surface Vessels and Their Impact on the Maritime Industry," by Alan M. Weigel and Sean T. Pribyl was published in the Fourth Quarter 2017 edition of Benedict’s Maritime Bulletin. Reprinted with permission. 

This article was originally published in the June 2017 edition of Mainbrace, Blank Rome's quarterly maritime newsletter.