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A ship without a captain: Michigan working to bring autonomous vessels to Great Lakes

Feb 6, 2018

Prototype (tank test and artist rendering) for autonomous container ship in Norway.
Credit Michigan Office of the Great Lakes

Autonomous vehicles are making their way towards the highways and streets of America, and between the automakers and the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, Michigan is playing a big role in developing the technology for autonomous vehicles.

Since Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes, what about autonomous vessels on the lakes?

Michael Beaulac of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes within the Department of Environmental Quality, joined Stateside to talk about the future of autonomous vessels and vehicles on the lakes.

Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

The importance of updating infrastructure and regulations as technology develops

“Technology usually precedes the regulatory environment on making the rules of the road, for example. So that has to be carefully examined and decided on before you’re going to have these vessels out in the environment.

“As with the automobiles, the infrastructure has to be suitable in order for them to operate properly, and the same thing applies to autonomous vessels and autonomous vehicles on the water. If you don’t have the infrastructure, you can’t operate them.”

The difficulty and potential of testing on the Great Lakes

“There’s areas of the Great Lakes that don’t have the traffic—either recreational vessels or commercial—that would allow us to test without putting a lot of folks in jeopardy, because obviously something like this, unproven technologies, in particular, need to be tested in a very controlled environment.

“We are looking at an area that focuses on the Houghton-Hancock part of the Keweenaw Peninsula—maybe about thirty or so miles around—because it gives us a variety of coastlines, there’s urban waterways there with the portage canal, there’s arctic like environments so that we can actually test things under inclement conditions, various bottom types, and, more importantly, there’s a waterfront university right there with Michigan Technological University.”

An international and collaborative approach

“We have begun to establish relationships with some of these other countries, Norway in particular. We just had an agreement signed between Governor Snyder and representatives from Norway to do just that, to share some of the lessons learned, the technology, and the like. We’re not looking at trade secrets, but we are looking at trying to get a conceptual understanding of what exactly is out there, how can we all share in it.

“[The Smart Ships Coalition] is a collaboration of multi-sector stakeholders that are all going to be focusing on fostering development and the enhancement and use of autonomous surface and sub-surface vehicles and supporting technologies. The stakeholders could be autonomy developers, academic research institutions, private businesses and industry throughout the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence basin, and even beyond.

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