TWT News

Autonomous Vehicles, Changing Transportation

Self-driving cars have already been discussed at length here at TWT, so why not discuss their relatives? Autonomous vehicles are growing in all sections of the transportation world, from ships to planes. These developments are not just shifting how we travel, but the entire industry as well.

SHIPS

File illustration courtesy Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce is currently developing a robotic ship, able to make deliveries with nobody on board. It can reroute itself to avoid bad weather or other vessels and alert its owners and destination to the change in plans. Of course, remote-controlled boats have existed for quite some time as popular toys. But these are the real deal: full-sized ships, fully autonomous.

The main benefit of autonomous ships is how much safer they’ll be. In a report published by Munich-based insurance group Allianz in 2012, up to 96% of maritime incidents are the result of human error. The most common reason? Fatigue. Having the ship steer itself cuts out a great deal of danger to its crew, preventing injuries and even death. Being hijacked by pirates would also be more difficult due to construction (and yes, pirates still exist). Other perks include carrying larger loads and working through the current shortage of nautical-trained workers.

PLANES

Image credit: Boeing

Stephen Rice, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told NBC News in 2017 that self-flying planes aren’t impossible in the next few years. The first step, though, is shrinking the cockpit. “What the industry is telling me,” he said, “is that they would like to remove one of the pilots very soon, and re-design the cockpit around a single pilot.” Ultimately, though, this idea fell through. Pilots protested en masse, and safety concerns were the major factor.

That said, pilotless flights would remove the largest cause of airliner deaths: pilot errors. Commercial aviation is already one of the safest modes of transport, but incidents that do occur are heavily reported on. Autonomous planes would make such accidents even less likely and could prevent anyone from overtaking the autopilot. This includes both crew and potential hijackers. But what it ultimately comes down to is if the public will trust such planes or not.

In the meantime, Airbus is developing Vahana, an autonomous air taxi. It’s not meant for lengthy global journeys, but rather quick urban trips. Its first flight was in February. There’s been no announcement on when Vahana will be available to the public, or where it will be located.

DRONES

Image credit: CNet

Drones are already the subject of controversy. How safe they are, if they’re a breach of privacy, etc.- these topics and more make them hot topics for debate. However, most drone owners will tell you that mastering their flight pattern is the biggest hurdle of all. The Mavic Pro quadcopter is an example of an autonomous drone, able to “see” in front of itself and avoid obstacles. There are other drones with similar capabilities, but the Mavic Pro is top-of-the-line and more advanced than its peers (and more expensive, but that’s par for the course).

The biggest problem is that the Mavic Pro and similar drones are autonomous by focusing on a single target: a person chosen when first launching the drone. If you’re wearing the same clothes and the battery is running, it may follow you as the target. It struggles some in low light and with inclement weather, as well. Nevertheless, these drones are essentially tracking devices, able to record people from the sky without them noticing. There’s a very distinct possibility such tech could be used nefariously. There is a benefit for good with such drones, though, but the pros and cons must be weighed. And with autonomous drones already on the market, such a debate must happen soon.

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