Sea Machines investment brings autonomous ships closer

Sea Machines has secured a total of $12.5 million to develop autonomous technology in the marine industry.
18 December 2018

Are ‘skipperless’ ships looming closer?

Boston-based Sea Machines Robotics has secured a US$10 million Series A investment, bringing it to a total capital of US$12.5 million raised by one of its largest venture rounds so far.

The company seeks to develop its own brand of autonomous technology in the marine industry that includes the possibility of introducing ‘skipperless’ container ships in the future.

The company will use the funds to expand the sales and global reach of its recently released line of products, grow the R&D and engineering teams, roll out new products and develop advanced situational awareness systems for vessels.

Targeting maritime transportation, offshore energy, commercial fishing, and aquaculture are key commercial goals for the company. According to Sea Machines, the continued reliance on 20th-century methodologies and technologies is holding these industries back from better profitability.

Founder and CEO of Sea Machines, Michael Gordon Johnson, says that this investment enables the company to strengthen its commitment towards making advanced command and control products that make the industry more capable, productive and profitable.

Echoing those sentiments, founding Managing Director of investor Toyota AI Ventures, Jim Adler, said: “Sea Machines’ autonomous technology and advanced perception systems can reduce costs, improve efficiency and enhance safety in the multi-billion dollar commercial shipping industry.”

In October, Sea Machines launched an industrial-grade control system providing level 3 ‘operator-in-the-loop’ autonomy for workboats and other commercial marine vessels, involved in scientific survey, spill response, dredging and security and surveillance.

Now the firm is in the process of developing advanced perception and navigation assistance technology for a range of vessels, including container ships. In the first quarter of 2019, the company will begin testing its perception and situational awareness technology aboard one of shipping giant Maersk’s new build ice-class container ships.

In April this year, Sea Machine’s tie-up with Maersk marked the first time computer vision, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and perception software was trialed on a container vessel to augment and upgrade transit operations. The solution uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve at-sea situational awareness, object identification, and tracking capabilities.

The goal for Maersk was to aid seafarers, remove line-of-sight restrictions from the bridge and provide the infrastructure for future autonomous collision avoidance systems.

According to Maersk Senior Manager, Michael A. Rodey, however, completely autonomous vessels are not an “end goal” for the firm just yet: “[…] what is more of interest is the technology along the journey and the value it brings”.

Commenting on Sea Machine’s investment, Rodey said it “sends a strong signal on the types of technologies that will come to define the maritime industry in the future.”

According to the International Chamber of Shipping, the international shipping industry is responsible for the movement of around 90 percent of world trade.

Currently, there are over 50,000 merchant ships trading internationally, with a world fleet registered to over 150 nations and manned by over a million seafarers.

Over half a trillion US dollars in freight rates can be garnered from the operation of merchant ships that include large high-value vessels that cost up to $200 million to build.