LIKE ANY PROPERLY terrifying invasion, it’s hard to tell whether the robot one will come by land, air, or sea. Toyotahas put its bets on the first two already: It has built its own autonomous driving tech, obviously, and Toyota AI Ventures has put money into robo-shuttle developer May Mobility, lidar maker Blackmore, and flying car effort Joby Aviation. And now, the venture arm is casting an eye to the water, participating in a $10 million Series A investment in Sea Machines Robotics.
“Toyota is a mobility company,” says Toyota AI Ventures lead Jim Adler. “It makes perfect sense we’d see autonomy applied to seagoing vessels.”
Boston-based Sea Machines is led by Michael Johnson, a lifelong marine engineer who helped prepare for the recovery of the capsized Costa Concordia. While on the project, he could look at the wrecked cruise ship from his apartment on Italy’s Isola del Giglio, and see an opportunity to do things better. Because human error causes the vast majority of collisions on the water, just as it does on the road. The cost of human labor is a pain point, just as it is with cars. “With modern technology, we could be doing it differently,” he says.
So in 2013, Johnson founded Sea Machines and started developing a range of systems that could make life on the water safer and more efficient. “This is a new technology for an industry that’s been operating the same way for a long time,” he says.
Sea Machines’ work falls into two general buckets. It is working on systems that will automate smaller vessels, where human labor can account for more than half of operating costs: workboats (the marine industry’s equivalent of construction vehicles), ships that do offshore surveys, firefighting, security, and responding to oil spills. Like with self-driving cars, the solution is based on sensors that let the ship perceive its surroundings and software that moves the ship accordingly. Last September, the company released its first product, SM300, which allows for remote and autonomous operation of workboats.
When it comes to ocean-crossing container ships, Sea Machines is less interested in cutting out the human. Labor on those ships is a small percentage of cost, Johnson says, partly because they require so few sailors. The idea is to combine those sensors and control systems with things like better weather data to fine tune operations. On journeys that cover thousands of miles, even a tiny improvement in fuel use or route planning can make a big difference.
As it happens, that aligns with how Toyota has approached autonomy in its vehicles. While many automakers are developing systems that do most of the work, with human oversight, Toyota’s “Guardian” setup takes the opposite approach, watching the human and stepping in when necessary. And while Toyota isn’t about to jump into the self-sailing ship game, it’s nice to know that wherever the robots show up, it’s ready to resist help them along.