“Autonomous ship applications have advanced rapidly because vessels on waterways have less potential conflicts to navigate than vehicles on roadways, especially city streets,” says Stan Caldwell, adjunct associate professor of transportation and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, and executive director of the university’s Traffic21 Institute.
Automated cars and trucks need to contend with each other and with pedestrians, so a waterway is definitely more flexible than roadways. This doesn’t mean water paths don’t have their own challenges though. “Potential conflicts would be debris in the water, shallow water, and other vessels, but even these are more limited than what you might encounter on a roadway,” says Caldwell. Docking and crossing are also good applications of marine self-driving robots. “Automation can enable precision docking with use of sensors as we have seen applied with automated buses,” Caldwell says.