An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: In the autonomous revolution that is underway, nearly every transportation machine will eventually be self-driving. For cars, it's likely going to take decades before we see them operating freely, outside of test conditions. Some unmanned watercraft, on the other hand, may be at sea commercially before 2020. That's partly because automating all ships could generate a ridiculous amount of revenue. According to the United Nations, 90 percent of the world's trade is carried by sea and 10.3 billion tons of products were shipped in 2016. According to NOAA's National Ocean Service, ships transported $1.5 trillion worth of cargo through U.S. ports in 2016. The world's 325 or so deep-sea shipping companies have a combined revenue of $10 billion.
Startups and major firms like Rolls Royce are now looking to automate the seas and help maritime companies ease navigation, save fuel, improve safety, increase tonnage, and make more money. As it turns out, autonomous systems for boats aren't supremely different than those of cars, beyond a few key factors -- for instance, water is always moving while roads are not, and ships need at least a couple miles to redirect. Buffalo Automation, a startup in upstate New York that began at the University at Buffalo, just raised $900,000 to help commercialize its AutoMate system -- essentially a collection of sensors and cameras to help boats operate semi-autonomously. CEO Thiru Vikram said the company is working with three pilot partners, and intends to target cargo ships and recreational vessels first. Autonomous ships are an area of particular interest for the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which sets the standards for international waters. It launched a regulatory scoping exercise last year to analyze the impact of autonomous boats. By the time it wraps in 2020, market demand may make it so that we already have semi-autonomous and unmanned vessels at sea.
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