Autonomous ships on the horizon for Great Lakes

The day of autonomous ships is soon dawning. Industry players say autonomous vessels will be cheaper to run — with no crew to feed and house — and take the danger out of sailing as well.

Lots of obstacles to navigate before everyone jumps on board

The Yara Birkeland is set to launch next year in Norway. (YouTube)

One day the freighter you see coming up the Detroit River might not have a crew aboard.

The day of autonomous ships is soon dawning. A Norwegian company will be launching a container vessel next year that it expects will not only navigate a river in Norway fully autonomously by 2020, but be battery powered as well.

Industry players say autonomous vessels will be cheaper to run — with no crew to feed and house — and take the danger out of sailing as well.

Guy Meadows, the director of the Great Lakes Research Center at the Michigan Technological University in Northern Michigan said the advantages are especially notable at this time of year, when it is more hazardous to venture onto the lakes.

"It knows the chart of the region. It has sensors to be able to detect the moving targets from the fixed targets, such as buoys and navigation aids. It understands the rules of the road," said Meadows, who is working with the State of Michigan on developing smaller autonomous research vessels to do the tedious drudge work such as bottom mapping.

Mark Fisher, President and CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region (CBC News)

Mark Fisher, the President and CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region non-profit agency in Ottawa, says the technology could replace specialist Great Lakes pilots who go aboard vessels from abroad to steer them through the Great Lakes.

"That's probably the most obvious aspect that could be changed or disrupted in terms of automation," said Fisher.

Leaders get on board

Governors and premiers of states and provinces along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River recently passed a resolution at a conference in Detroit and Windsor, aimed at planning the infrastructure needed for autonomous shipping. And spin off the development work being done with autonomous land vehicles to also make this a centre of excellence to include ships as well.

But the seaway is now governed by two entities — The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation on the Canadian side and the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation on the American side.

Fishermen cast their lines in the Detroit River as the Sam Laud, an iron ore freighter, travels through the fog, Monday, April 11, 2016, in Detroit. (Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press)

Fisher said integrating the governance of the St. Lawrence Seaway system — another move floated at the conference — may be necessary before the two countries can put the regulatory framework in place.

"Both management corporations for the seaway and the federal governments have to be involved in this discussion at some point in order to have a seamless, harmonized approach to autonomous vessels transiting through the seaway," said Fisher.

Long channel to go

Michael Beaulac, the senior project administrator for the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, believes it will be a long time before the regulatory demands put in place by the Coast Guard on each side of the border can be met.

"The technology is there. We could probably do it from a technological perspective but the infrastructure and the legal issues and liability issues are still pretty big obstacles before we're going to see this happening," said Beaulac, adding the technology still needs a lot of testing and may never be advanced enough to safely navigate a tight waterway like the Detroit River.

Hear more from Mark Fisher

CBC News contacted three shipping companies which regularly ply the Great Lakes and the Detroit River but only Algoma Central Corporation responded with a statement.

"At Algoma, we continue to monitor the advancement of such technology, but would not likely be a first adopter," COO Gregg Ruhl said in the statement. "Although we are supportive of localized research and development as resolved by the Governors and Premiers, we would prefer more resources be focused on extending the length of the season for the Welland Canal and even the entire St. Lawrence Seaway."