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Environment & Climate Change

How autonomous vessels could change Great Lakes commerce, research

An autonomous vessel on water.
Guy Meadows
“[The autonomous vessel] is powered by a small diesel engine, which gives it the seven-day duration. But there’s no place for people," Guy Meadows, director of the Great Lakes Research Center, said.";s:

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the future of self-driving cars. But what about autonomous ships?

When the Great Lakes governors and the premiers of Ontario and Quebec begin their 2019 summit on Friday, one of the events on the schedule will be a demonstration of “smart ship” technology.

Guy Meadows directs the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University where he specializes in marine engineering.

He says that the demonstration will feature what his team believes to be “the world leader in autonomous surface vessels.” It's a bright yellow, 18-foot, fully-autonomous research vessel that can operate for up to seven days completely unattended.

Per an agreement with the Coast Guard, this particular vessel will be operating under “supervised autonomy” to ensure safety in Lake Superior, where Meadows and his team are testing its usefulness as a research vessel. 

“There will be a supervisory vessel that can take control at any moment,” Meadows said.

These kinds of unoccupied vessels, Meadows says, are best used to complete tasks that fall into the “three Ds”: dirty, dangerous, and dull.

“Dull would be resurveying the Great Lakes, which is really necessary. In some places, the surveys are 100 years old. Dangerous are things that you would not want to risk human exposure — that would be clean-ups of contaminants, spills, collisions between ships, oil spills, things of that nature,” Meadows explained.

Research into autonomous land vehicles is far beyond that of autonomous ships, but Meadows says there's a lot of interest in bringing the technology being developed at auto companies into the marine sector. Twenty years from now, Meadows says he hopes that smart ship technology will help improve water quality, give us a better understanding of invasive species, and create more accurate maps of the depths and substrates of the Great Lakes.

Meadows acknowledges that the widespread implementation of autonomous vessels would cause a shift in the duties of ship pilots and crew members. Still, he argues that the development of this technology presents “tremendous opportunity” to create jobs and boost the region's economy as well. 

“Part of the governors’ and premiers’ interest is to use our capacity here throughout the Great Lakes Basin to become an exporter worldwide of these technologies,” Meadows said. "We think we could lead the market in that rather than playing catchup.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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