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Self-driving boats next

Self-driving cars may not hit the road in earnest for many years - but autonomous boats could be just around the pier.

Spurred in part by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles, marine innovators are building automated ferry boats for Amsterdam canals, cargo ships that can steer themselves through Norwegian fjords and remote-controlled ships to carry containers across the Atlantic and Pacific. The first such autonomous ships could be in operation within three years.

One experimental workboat spent this summer dodging tall ships and tankers in Boston Harbor, outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and emblazoned with the words "UNMANNED VESSEL" across its aluminum hull.

"We're in full autonomy now," said Jeff Gawrys, a marine technician for Boston startup Sea Machines Robotics, sitting at the helm as the boat floated through a harbour channel.

"Roger that," said computer scientist Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik, as he helped to guide the ship from his laptop on a nearby dock.

The boat still needs human oversight. But some of the world's biggest maritime firms have committed to designing ships that won't need any captains or crews — at least not on board.

The startup has signed a deal with an undisclosed company to install the "world's first autonomy system on a commercial containership," CEO Michael Johnson said this week. It will be remotely-controlled from land as it travels the North Atlantic. He also plans to sell the technology to companies doing oil spill cleanups and other difficult work on the water, aiming to assist maritime crews, not replace them.

Johnson, a marine engineer whose previous job took him to the Italian coast to help salvage the sunken cruise ship Costa Concordia, said that deadly 2012 capsizing and other marine disasters have convinced him that "we're relying too much on old-world technology."

"Humans get distracted, humans get tired," he said.



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