News / Toronto

A boat without a captain: Could crewless ships soon sail on the Great Lakes?

As autonomous vehicles make waves on land, lawmakers are looking to the possibilities on the water.

The Council of the Great Lakes Region recently passed a resolution to look at infrastructure needs for autonomous shipping.

Richard Lautens / Torstar News Service Order this photo

The Council of the Great Lakes Region recently passed a resolution to look at infrastructure needs for autonomous shipping.

The rise of driverless cars has lawmakers along the shores of the Great Lakes looking to the water.

A recent leadership summit of U.S. governors and Canadian premiers that border the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway passed a resolution to look at planning the infrastructure needed to facilitate autonomous ships.

Despite the enthusiasm, much like driverless cars, crewless ships are "still a ways off," said Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region, a bi-national stakeholder organization.

"We’re still very much in the research and development phase," Fisher said, adding the resolution is a starting point to look at the "potential value and benefits but also risks and challenges.”

This comes as the so-called Tesla of the Seas, a $31-million cargo ship, prepares to launch next year. The ship, actual name Yara Birkeland, is being co-developed by a Norwegian agriculture firm and a transportation logistics company, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Closer to our shores, researchers are working on the technology to outfit research and survey vessels, such as those needed to map the lakebed.

Known as a "marine highway," cargo shipments on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes account for $34.6 billion in economic activity annually, according to the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation.

Fisher says a range of disruptions to the massive industry have to be considered. Among them: the potential impact on jobs, such as Great Lakes navigators. As it is, any ship captain traversing the waterway must have a special licence.

However the future of autonomous shipping comes together, it will require many different parties getting on the same page, Fisher said.

"You need to have both sides of the border working together on technology development but also the regulatory approach."

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