In the first chapters of Simon Sinek’s bestseller Start With Why, readers are presented with the story of the race to build the first flying machine that could carry a human aloft. It’s a David and Goliath tale between the heavily financed, “dream team” of experts led by Samuel Pierpont Langley, and the Wright brothers with their community-based humble means.
The enthusiasts were fuelled by a passion for working out of a bicycle workshop, without financial backing, strong connections, or advanced level education. Whereas Langley, who was once a senior military officer, a professor in mathematics, physics and astronomy, was equipped with a U.S. Government contract. Langley’s team was awarded the equivalent of $55.4million in today’s money to build the first powered plane. But on the 17th of December 1903 which team witnessed a man take flight for the first time?
How is it possible that Orville and Wilbur Wright succeeded without all that money could offer? Both teams had intelligence, and dedication and shared the same vision, so what was the difference? Sinek tells us it’s the ability to inspire. Leaders inspire those around them to do more and be better. And really, startups are no different. Even in an area as technically challenging as autonomous shipping.
As the global tech landscape develops, the autonomous shipping market is keeping pace. And with each year that passes new technological capabilities, small businesses, and startups emerge. Dedicated teams passionate about solving some of the industry’s biggest challenges inspire greatness. Pushing the boundaries of what is possible leads to fundamental change.
Back in 2019, we compiled five autonomous shipping startups to watch. A few years on we are doing it again. The list is published below. This time we have included small businesses too so we are sure we are reflecting the best of innovation. But first, what happened to the 2019 list?
The 2019 list, where are they now?
|Company||2019 Offering||2019 Funding|
|Sea Machines Robotics||Sea Machines Robotics builds advanced autonomous technology for the marine and maritime sector and has already launched a product line of autonomous control and navigation systems for commercial boats and ships.||$12.3million, Series A.|
|Shone||Built on the premise that an autonomous vessel doesn’t mean an unmanned vessel, Shone retrofits ships with autonomous technologies to improve the safety, security and quality of life of the crew on board.||$4.2million, Seed.|
|Orca AI||Orca AI is building an intuitive, AI-based collision avoidance system to help the bridge team safely navigate congested waters.||$2.6million, Seed.|
|Buffalo Automation||New York based University of Buffalo (UB) Automation is building autonomous control systems for ships, boats, ports, and waterways.||$967,000, Seed.|
|Ladar Ltd||Ladar builds light-based sensor technology for the maritime and offshore industry. Ladar detects, characterises, classifies and tracks various objects in real-time, from humans to ice floes, floating debris and oil spills.||$2.8million, Grant.|
|Massterly||Massterly claims to be the world’s first full-service autonomous shipping company. The business was set up to commercially operate maritime autonomous surface ships||Unknown|
Sea Machines Robotics
- Total funding raised: $32m
- The why – To build the future of ocean mobility
- Acquired by Bedrock Ocean Exploration in April 2022.
- Bedrock Ocean’s cloud-native subsea data platform is a single place for organisations to manage, share and access nuanced seafloor data.
- The why – to provide the world with a free, publicly available map of our world’s oceans, 50x more detailed than the current best public map available.
- Total funding raised: $15.5 million.
- The why – Avoid Collisions, save lives
- An artificial intelligence (AI) startup founded by former UB students and primarily focused on autonomous marine navigation. The AutoMate technology can be installed on existing vessels.
- Total funding raised: $2.6M
- The why – to prevent accidents and save lives
- The Ladar Sensor Suite aims to meet regulatory compliance, protect the environment and explore the digitalized and automated future.
- Total funding raised: $2.6m
- The why – To avoid collisions and save lives
- Launched the famous autonomous container ship (Yara Birkeland) based in the South Eastern Norway region. Developing into the subsea branch of the industry by partnering with Reach Subsea and ASKO Maritime AS.
- Funding unknown
- The why – To make autonomy a reality
What did we learn?
Most of the companies selected in 2019 have gone on to grow by securing more funding and contracts. The only exception is Shone. Though they struggled to get commercial traction for their overall solution, Shone’s Web Nautical Chart technology (which is what drove the Bedrock acquisition), represents a major leap forward in providing charting tools that are digitally native and developer friendly. This technology could have applications well beyond the autonomy sector and is worth watching.
Tthe influence of its parent companies, Kongsberg Group and Wilhelmsen, and now new partners make Massterly worth continuing to watch for a couple of reasons. First, operationally, they will be remotely controlling ships from land within the next year. Second, this is the first time SR-Bank has financed a self-driving ship. SR-Bank is the second largest Norwegian owned bank and lender. This vote of confidence suggests that the progress of start-ups and corporate businesses means autonomous shipping is no longer something of the distant future.
So much has happened in the past few years. Global pandemics, political escalations along with increased environmental and climate events have affected how the world operates. Not to mention the inherent regulatory challenges of developing autonomous transportation. We couldn’t have known in 2019 about the disruptions that lay ahead. This makes the growth of the ‘twenty-nineteen startup watch list’ and their respective success quite something.
The pressing need for companies to understand the impact of such complexities to plan for the future and develop evidence-led strategies has never been so critical. So what does our intelligence platform tell us now? Well, since we have a wealth of information at our fingertips, we have narrowed it down to 5 profiles.
Startups and small businesses to watch in 2022/23
Many of the previously discussed companies are focussing on automating navigation and vessel command to improve vessel safety. Reducing environmental emissions, and minimising risks to human lives are other emerging themes in the original autonomous shipping companies list. 2022’s offering goes beyond that.
Using Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs), XOCEAN provides turnkey data collection services to surveyors, companies and agencies.
- Funding: $20,900,000
- Notable for – From mapping the seabed to environmental monitoring, their platform offers a safe, economic and carbon neutral solution to collecting ocean data. They manage everything from mobilisation right up to the delivery of data to their customers.
- The why – To transform ocean data collection, supporting the sustainable and economic growth of our most precious resource — our ocean
Ocean Infinity’s team applies big data to ocean technology covering vast areas of the seabed at high speeds.
- Funding – $15,788,700.00
- Notable for – They use innovative technology to gather data from great depths and hard to access regions of the ocean.
- The why – To deliver insights to effect positive change
Seafar NV is an independent ship management company, offering services to operate unmanned and crew-reduced vessels for ship owners and shipping companies. Next to developing technology, SEAFAR specialises in operating and managing automated barges. The different shore based operating and command options are, crew supported navigation, crew reduced navigation, unmanned navigation
- Funding $480,000 (approx)
- Notable for – Developing technology and remotely operated management services for (semi) automated barges for inland shipping.
- The why – To implement efficient smart shipping
Captain AI is developing the world’s first safe and fully autonomous shipping solution using high-fidelity simulation, cutting-edge sensors and state-of-the-art deep learning techniques
- Funding – $340,000
- Notable for – Providing decision support and solutions for organisations that have a need for autonomous ships, require an auto-pilot (AI) that is extensively trained, bridging the gap in time consuming and costly pilotage training
- The why – To provide autonomous ships for autonomous ports
HydroSurv is a designer, builder and operator of innovative Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) for hydrographic, geophysical and environmental data acquisition. Their Uncrewed Surface Vehicles are for inland, nearshore and offshore operations.
- Funding – Unknown
- Notable for – Uncrewed Surface Vehicles & Robotics
- The why – To make marine geospatial data accessible for the ocean industries
The evolution of autonomy
We know that automated ship and port operations are growing, all with the aim to prioritise human crew safety and the wellbeing of the planet. Whatsmore, we know that just as supply chain management is considered from production to recipient, decarbonisation strategies are considered in a well-to-wake principle, autonomous shipping is following suit. It is no longer simply a question of ‘to crew or not to crew’, ‘system or human control’, or what might be possible. The situation is more, how does (not can) autonomous technology enhance the way humans work within shipping? The startups of 2019, and 2022 demonstrate this. The vision of the smaller companies is an inspiration to others. Just as the Wright brothers aviation pioneers, or startups or their day made aviation history, who says the companies featured in this article aren’t doing the same?
Here’s a summary of the 2022 startup and smaller enterprises leading autonomous shipping innovations and ‘why they do it’:
- To deliver insights to effect positive change
- To transform ocean data collection, supporting the sustainable and economic growth of our most precious resource — our ocean
- To implement efficient smart shipping
- To provide autonomous ships for autonomous ports
- To make marine geospatial data accessible for the ocean industries
Source: Thetius by Hazel Sivori