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Autonomous Ships and Surface Vessels Are the Next Facet of the Blue Economy

An autonomous boat out of its natural habitat

When considering frontiers about which we still have much to learn, the world’s oceans represent one of the most intriguing. Increasingly, the blue economy has been expanding over the past several decades. Notably, oceans and waterways serve critical roles in food supplies and in logistics transportation. This has been  quite evident throughout the pandemic and even now. But oceans are also important for many other reasons including scientific research, climate change solutions, and offshore wind technologies. Because of this, innovations involving this frontier are important not only for our future but the earth’s as well.

(Read more about offshore wind technology and the renewable energy conundrum in this Bold story.)

Understanding this, many businesses are investing heavily in automation and other technologies related to the blue economy. One of the most notable areas in this regard involve autonomous ships and related vessels. Often referred to as unmanned or autonomous surface vessels, there are an array of tasks these machines can perform. These include not only mapping ocean waterways and sea beds. But it also includes collecting all types of data that might improve weather predictions and a sustainable aquatics culture. With this in mind, it’s worth taking a look at  some reputable companies involved in autonomous surface vessels.

“[Existing sonar vessels have] a big data problem — how would you design the systems to support [a] solution? We make it a modern data service, instead of like a huge marine operation — you’re not tied to this massive piece of infrastructure floating in the water.” – Anthony DiMare, CEO and Co-founder of Bedrock

Autonomous Ships and Mapping Innovations

As waterway traffic increases, it’s becoming increasingly critical to obtain better maps of the oceans and seas. Current technologies that are most commonly used require large vessels with sizable sonar devices. Likewise, these devices produce tremendous amounts of data that requires constant contextual referencing. Understanding that many ships lack consistent access to the Internet, many must download and store this data. But as data pools expand, this becomes increasingly cumbersome. Because of this, some innovative autonomous ships are exploring new ways to map waterways. And one of the most intriguing companies doing this are pursuing underwater versions of autonomous surface vessels.

Bedrock chose to start from scratch and design a completely new approach to mapping oceans. Instead of autonomous surface vessels, their autonomous ships travel underwater. They then use high-frequency sonar to map ocean and sea beds with incredible accuracy. Initially, concerns existed about how this might be harmful to aquatic life. But Bedrocks drones travel in close proximity to the ocean floor, making it safe for underwater creatures. Plus, the data collected is stored and analyzed to the cloud, making it much more accessible to ships. All of this results in both better quality images, better access to maps, and reduced costs. It’s understandable why Bedrock has received significant funding support for its efforts.

“Saildrone is going where no research vessel has ever ventured, sailing right into the eye of the hurricane, gathering data that will transform our understanding of these powerful storms.” – Richard Jenkins, Founder and CEO of Saildrone

Autonomous Ships Advancing Research and Discovery

Bedrock is not the only business using autonomous ships to provide better mapping tools to the ocean. Saildrone is another competitor that has deployed several autonomous surface vessels for mapping. In fact, their vessels have over half a million miles collectively through various oceans and seas. But Saildrone is involved in other endeavors as well that go beyond oceanographic mapping. Recently, one of its autonomous surface vessels, the Surveyor, went in the midst of a Category 4 hurricane. Incredibly, it survived 50-foot waves and 120 mph winds. And in the process, collected an abundance of scientific data for future analysis by meteorologists and oceanographers.

A graphic of an autonomous boat checking out its peers
Autonomous ships and surface vessels are adding a new wrinkle to the Blue Economy.

As far as startups in autonomous ships, Saildrone is among the top businesses in the field. In fact, the company recently received $100 million in Series C funding from investors. The company’s capacity to offer broad services in autonomous ships makes it attractive to venture capitalists. Its current pursuits involve navigational information, scientific research, climate change insights, and details about aquaculture. The biggest downside is the expense involved in order to scale its autonomous surface vessels to competitive levels. Certainly, its recent funding will be used for these purposes.

“Remotely-commanded autonomous vessels provide the industry with significant increases in productivity and operational safety and will provide a new world of actionable operational data for improved planning and business practices.” – Michael Johnson, CEO of Sea Machines

Rising Competition and Offerings in the Industry

In addition to Bedrock and Saildrone, there are many other businesses involved in autonomous ships. For example, Sea Machines Robotics has developed autonomous surface vessels that serve as tug boats. They also have a line of commercial autonomous ships as well. Their vessels interesting run off vegetable oil and thus use no fossil fuels. This makes them attractive from an environmental perspective. The company’s SM300 recently completed a 1,027-mile journey that was nearly all under autonomous control. This provides proof of the viability of autonomous ships serving key roles in the future of oceanic traffic and services.

Other businesses in this field also deserve recognition. EcoDrone and Sea Proven are involved in the design of commercial autonomous ships as well. However, both of these companies offer smaller vessels that can be highly customized. And there are many others exploring autonomous surface vessels for logistics transportation overseas. Because so many operations are in existence, the competition is currently fierce. But it’s this same competition that will drive important changes in the blue economy. The impact of autonomous boats are already being felt throughout the world. And like several other sectors, this one will also see high levels of automation and digitization in the years to come.


Explore Bold Business’ ten-article deep dive into the Blue Economy–start your voyage with this story on the future of maritime trade.

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