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Autonomous shipping charts new waters on the intelligent edge

Falco is the first ferry to operate with no captain. This autonomous ship signals the future of maritime transport—on the intelligent edge.

SAN FRANCISCO --Measuring nearly 60 meters long, Falco cuts an imposing figure in the waters of Finland, where it charts its course.

Falco is the first completely autonomous ferry, operating with passengers on board—but without a captain. The ferry traverses between two islands—a relatively simple, uncongested journey. But the ship can also be controlled remotely from a command center 50 kilometers away. If something goes awry, a human can take over.

Falco has Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled “sensors on board that create situational awareness,” noted Vincent Campfens, digital strategy manager for the Port of Rotterdam Authority, at the IBM Think conference in February. “Based on that data, it can adjust its course and speed.” Falco has a variety of factors to measure in ever- changing conditions: tidal streams, wind speed, precipitation and more to measure.

Campfens has a reason to show excitement about a futuristic boat operating 1,800 km away. In the future—possibly by 2030—autonomous vessels could provide opportunities for organizations like the Port of Rotterdam. It is responsible for the management, sustainable development and commercial operation of the port. The port’s waterways handle some 140,000 traversing ships carrying some 460 million tons of cargo annually. These ships require safe passage and solid Internet connectivity to conduct business.

Greater autonomy and decision making from vessels themselves is still in the future, but could ensure greater safety, ease of management and new commercial opportunities in ports like Rotterdam.

Autonomous shipping gathers steam with the intelligent edge

While self-driving cars have been the subject of praise and derision over the past couple of years, autonomous shipping has gotten less attention. But more than 85% of all globally traded goods travel on a ship during their lifecycle, so shipping ports are key to the economy. And, according to a recent MarketsandMarkets report, the autonomous shipping industry is due to reach $13.8 billion by 2030. Greater demand, intelligent optimization of the waterways and safety all drive this shift.

Those in the industry say that autonomous shipping is indeed on the way, but not yet ready for prime time. “We are some way off full commercial operation [of autonomous ships],” said Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, in an article on the future of autonomous shipping, “but it definitely is going to happen in the not too distant future.” The Port of Rotterdam is banking on autonomous vessels docking in its waterways by 2030.

So while the ambitious future of 300-kilometer cargo ships sailing on their own may be a decade or so away, Falco has already demonstrated the promise of autonomous vessels.

“You have to do it simple first. In a nice, safe and simple environment,” Campfens said. “The conditions are pretty stable. Because of that, it can just use its own situational awareness. But in an environment as complex as the Port of Rotterdam, a ship like Falco would  need additional contextual awareness from the port area, Campfens noted.

Using IoT-enabled sensors, routers and gateways, the Cisco Kinetic platform as well as IBM Watson artificial intelligence and Esri ArcGIS , a cloud-based mapping system, the port is moving toward this highly tuned future. With Cisco Kinetic, the port can ensure safe and secure transport and management of data.

This combination of connected sensors, artificial intelligence and IoT analytics platform also exemplify the intelligent edge of the future, where data and connectivity no longer reside in a public cloud or centralized data center—which can create delays in processing of that data--but instead remain at the edge, closer to the users and devices that need them.

In this way, the ports can bring connectivity, security and safety to the waterways via the intelligent edge.

Benefits of autonomous shipping—and some risks

The port has garnered various benefits from connected things and the intelligent edge. Ships can dock at port when the weather conditions are most favorable. As a result, the journey may be safer and smoother for cargo and passengers. With optimal conditions, vessels are also likely to be more fuel-efficient, supporting another major initiative for the Port of Rotterdam: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 95% by 2050.

That goal is ambitious, Campfens said. “But we want to set an example for the world—we want to be leading in the energy transition.”

Additionally, Campfens noted, digitizing processes and business rules help the port retain institutional ‘analog’ knowledge that is jeopardized as workers age.

At the same time, greater digitization and more connected things bring new attack surfaces for malicious attackers to seize on.

“With great automation comes great cybersecurity risks,” Campfens said. With so many digital interactions in the port area, he noted, security is the “primary requirement IT suppliers must meet” for the Port of Rotterdam Authority. The port already stores about 1 million data points daily from IoT sensors.

And data not only has to be secure but also reliable: Data points must be accurate for ships to chart their navigation and for terminals to plan their operations. “We have to be damn sure we give the ships the right data,” Campfens said.

“At the Port of Rotterdam, we invest a lot in data quality and data governance, so stakeholders can rely on us as an authoritative source for data,” he said.

He noted that data, as with most industries that are modernizing, is the currency of the maritime industry. “You have to have the right data at the right time and in the right place. The better your data quality, the better your decision making.”

“And just as in other industries, we also invest in international standardization,” Campfens said. “It is crucial that systems between ship and shore speak the same language all over the world. The aviation industry is way ahead on that part.”

The benefits will gain apace as autonomous shipping pervades the maritime industry, and it’s already charting the course on value, Campfens affirmed.

“There is so much to gain in safety, efficiency and sustainability,” he said. “I think we’re heading there.”

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”