- The autonomous boat Echodrone will conduct measurements of the water depth in the Port of Antwerp, the second largest container port in Europe, to ensure the safe passage of ships.
- The new vessel will navigate independently using cloud-based data from other vessels and devices in the harbor, unlike other self-driving vessels that used onboard sensors to establish their location, the port said in its announcement.
- The Echodrone joins the larger crewed sounding vessel Echo already in operation. The smaller Echodrone can navigate where the Echo is unable to go, such as in the midst of heavy shipping traffic. After trials are complete, the Echodrone will be based in the Deurganck dock to measure the water depth of the available berths at the busy tidal quays used for container operations.
Small, specialized boats like the Echodrone are among the first autonomous vessels to enter service. It's likely that autonomous vessels will increase in size until they reach container and bulk freighter-sized ships that will operate with very limited or no crews at all.
The Echodrone system selectively compiles data available on the internet, and algorithms transform it into information that the vessel uses to independently navigate the harbor. This system may be limited to boats that operate in harbors or close to shore where there's enough data available for navigation.
Unmanned vessels could address supply chain disruptions from human error while operating ships and the threat of piracy, as there would be no crew to hold for ransom.
Rolls-Royce, one of the leading industry proponents of autonomous vessels, predicts remote-controlled, unmanned vessels will be operating by 2025, and oceangoing vessels will be common by 2030.
In the future, vessels will have varying levels of remote or automated control depending on their operating environment. Vessels operating far out in the ocean could operate autonomously with a captain monitoring several vessels from shore. As the vessel nears the port, a captain would monitor each ship individually. Perhaps in some situations, a small crew and a pilot would board the vessel for difficult docking sequences.
The first large autonomous ship will likely ply the waters of a coastal flag state, serving as a ferry or coastwise cargo carrier, according to Rolls-Royce. The coast of Norway may be the first home to an operational autonomous ship as the Trondheim Fjord has been established as a test area for the technology.