Tapping AI for autonomous navigation

In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Dor Raviv, co-founder and CTO of Orca AI, said he wanted to bring the power of AI and computer vision to the maritime industry for the safest voyages with the most efficient operations. 

Dor Raviv, co-founder and CTO of Orca AI.

In order to do that, since the company started in 2018, Raviv and his team are on a mission to ensure that the latest technologies can seamlessly integrate with the vessels’ existing systems and workflows. They collaborate with ship operators and seafarers to understand what are needed, undertake extensive testing to guarantee compatibility and reliability in different maritime environments. 

The team also deal with regulatory and compliance issues, which vary according to countries and involve a lengthy process, as they have to obtain approvals for new technologies, and to comply with international standards set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Additionally, Raviv said it is crucial to gain acceptance and trust from vessel operators and seafarers too, to overcome cultural and organizational barriers as there is always resistance to change and skepticism in adopting new technologies because seafarers have to undergo additional training and education. 

However, Raviv is relentless in advocating for AI to help seafarers and vessel operators to bring about safe voyages and efficient operations and he believes that SeaPod, the company’s fully automated look‑out on the bridge, an AI-based maritime navigation assistant, can improve situational awareness, minimize workload and fatigue, and reduce human error.

“There are increasing challenges in the maritime space amid the increasing number of ships and cargo volumes. Waters are becoming even more congested, oceangoing ships are getting bigger, and less experienced crews are replacing older seafarers, while navigation at sea has not changed much in the past 200 years and relies on navigational tools such as radar and ECDIS (electronic maps).

“This results in more than 4,000 ship incidents every year, and the predominant cause is human error. These accidents could potentially end in the loss of human life, damage to the cargo, and damage to the vessel. They can also potentially lead to major oil and/or diesel spills from ships, as well as pollution by hazardous cargoes.”

Raviv said because of its proactive approach to safety, SeaPod can automate navigation processes while enhancing situational awareness for seafarers. It can process multiple sources of data in seconds, mimic and enhance human watchkeeping 24/7, and identify and evaluate even the most complex marine traffic situations in real-time. SeaPod can also detect, track, and classify targets at any distance, including smaller objects.

“Unlike traditional systems that may rely solely on reactive measures, SeaPod utilizes AI-driven algorithms to detect, track, and classify potential risks to the vessel in real time. By providing immediate alerts to the crew and minimizing the risk of human error, SeaPod reduces bridge crew workload and addresses a significant shortcoming in contemporary maritime operations. 

“As of now, there are no other systems currently available that can provide such granular situational awareness (accurate detection and categorization of objects) for vessels especially in low-visibility conditions (night fog, rain) and congested areas.” 

In January, Orca AI launched the next-generation SeaPod watchkeeping unit, which featured eight highly-sensitive cameras, that provide enhanced field-of-view (FOV) and target detection, encased in a lightweight (10 kilograms) durable construction. It streams the data to a user-friendly interface with other critical target parameters.

SeaPod has complied with IMO SOLAS Chapter V Regulation 22 (Safety of Navigation/Navigational Bridge Visibility), and the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW).

Raviv said Orca AI has the largest maritime visual data set in the world. For the past four years, it has collected 20 million nautical miles’ worth of visual data from voyages performed by 50 vessels, the equivalent to 200 years of sailing across the globe. He added that the data are prioritized, filtered, and synchronized by computer-vision sensors which are combined with input from other navigational sensors, including GPS, radar, AIS, depth, wind, rudder, and gyrocompass.

SeaPod reduces the crew’s workload and fatigue, without compromising safety when navigating international waters by automating target detection and risk prioritization. SeaPod also enables seafarers to make better decisions earlier prior to navigating congested waters and in low visibility.

SeaPod

Rising threat of drone attacks on ships  

Since November 2023, Houthi forces have been attacking ships at the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in response to the ongoing war in Gaza. Shipping companies have thus re-routed their fleets around the Cape of Good Hope, which is off the Cape Peninsula in South Africa.

According to a report by analytics company Spire Global, there was an increase in trade voyages from October 2023 to January 2024 between China and Europe via the new route. For the Red Sea, freight container volumes decreased by around 78 percent, which impacted 10 percent of global maritime trade, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Raviv said recent drone attacks on shipping vessels, which caused significant delay and disruption to global supply chains, on top of damage to the vessels, also exposed the shortcomings of the current ship alert systems. He said that SeaPod is the only technology presently able to counter this threat and protect the safety of seafarers.

“The impact on the crew navigating the vessel, who find themselves in the middle of an attack, is of much greater concern. Drones can strike a vessel without warning at any given moment from any direction, which can trigger fear, stress, and panic among the crew and allow them little or no time to safeguard themselves.

“Conversely, being able to monitor incoming drones would allow early warning to provide precious time for the crew to find shelter, attempt an evasive maneuver, or report an imminent attack. The reliable technology excels in the early detection and classification of small targets, notably even airborne targets, providing timely alerts to crews for actions such as taking cover or recording for evidence.”

Raviv said SeaPod can deliver at least a one-minute specific audio warning to the crew before a potential attack. This will allow them to undertake necessary precautions to ensure their safety. It also provides live video streaming to monitor the situation onshore and will automatically adjust to a specialized mode in geo-fenced regions like the Red Sea, enhancing its sensitivity dramatically.

SeaPod in action in foggy situation.

World’s first cargo vessel autonomous voyage

In August 2020, Orca AI partnered with Japan’s NYK Group, for a trial of a first autonomous voyage by a cargo vessel. During the initial phase, a NYK cargo ship was equipped with SeaPod, for 40 hours of 98 percent autonomous navigation between Tokyo Bay and Tsumatsusaka Port in Ise Bay. 

Raviv said real-time data from the ship, live-streamed to the fleet operations center in Tokyo, showed 107 collision avoidance maneuvers and evasion of 500 other vessels. He said the trial provided practical experience in developing reliable autonomous technologies, which positioned Orca AI as a notable player in the field.

In May 2023, Orca AI also signed a worldwide distribution deal with maritime technology distributor Marubeni in Japan and Southeast Asia. SeaPod’s automated watchkeeping capabilities address Japanese ship owners’ and operators’ current shortage of skilled seafarers, with the country’s fast-aging population and the reluctance of younger generations to join the maritime industry. SeaPod reduces reliance on human intervention through AI and computer vision.

Global shipping industry adapts to AI

Raviv said: “Although the maritime industry is traditionally reliant on expertise and experience rather than data analysis, it is also experiencing a technological transformation. The rapid technological evolution in the shipping industry is significantly propelled by increasing connectivity, enabling seamless integration of advanced AI solutions. 

“With the proliferation of interconnected systems and IoT devices onboard vessels, data exchange and real-time communication have become the norm. This connectivity facilitates the swift implementation and operation of AI-driven technologies, from autonomous navigation systems to predictive maintenance functions.”

He added that connectivity also allows for remote monitoring and management of fleet operations, empowering onshore decision-makers with actionable insights for optimizing performance and ensuring safety. In terms of connectivity expansion, the shipping industry is poised to further leverage on innovative tech solutions, driving efficiency, sustainability, and competitiveness across the maritime sector.

Raviv sees a significant potential for autonomous ship technology to take off in the Asia Pacific region with Japan, South Korea, and China investing heavily in research and development. He foresees autonomous ships could streamline shipping operations and further cut costs. 

“Absolutely, expanding into the APAC region is definitely on our radar given the potential of the APAC market for autonomous ship technology and safety solutions. Our goal is to bring Orca AI’s innovative safety solutions to new markets, ensuring safer and more efficient maritime operations globally.”

However, he said there is still a need to address more regulatory issues and cybersecurity concerns in the maritime industry. Collaboration between governments, industries, and technology providers is crucial for the successful adoption of autonomous shipping in Asia Pacific.

With sustainability goals at the core of most global businesses, last year, Orca AI reported a 172,716-ton reduction in CO2 emissions and fuel savings as a result of fewer sharp maneuvers and speed drops by vessels. Raviv said the company aims to assist the maritime industry in achieving carbon-neutral operations further. Orca AI also reported a reduction of potential incidents and collisions. 

Top photo credit: iStock/ Suphanat Khumsap

All other photos credit: Orca AI

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