No One At The Helm, Anchors Up On Self-Sailing Boats

Boats will soon be capable of sailing without  captains on board. The first tests will take place next year.

3D rendering of the Yara Birkeland
3D rendering of the Yara Birkeland
Paul Molga

TRONDHEIM — First there were driverless cars. Soon, there will also be boats that can sail without a captain. The Norwegian company Kongsberg officially started this technological endeavor this past summer when it announced the development of a prototype freighter, which is scheduled to be tested next year. Completely electronic, this container ship will shuttle between Porsgrunn, south of Oslo, and the ports of Brevik and Larvik to transport fertilizer from the manufacturer Yara to the North Sea. "Every day, more than 100 diesel trucks travel from our factory towards these two ports, which makes 40,000 trips per year and an equivalent amount of pollution which we can avoid," says the organization's president Svein Tore Holsether in a press release.

Baptized the Yara Birkeland (in homage to the physician Kristian Birkeland, who discovered the origin of the Aurora Borealis), this shuttle will run 24/7 all year round. Numerous sensors will help guide it and preempt obstacles. The company anticipates a carbon dioxide reduction of 678 tonnes per year. But this environmental engagement comes at a price: $25 million in investment, three times the price of a normal cargo ship of the same capacity.

The maritime industry sees only advantages to engaging in this field.

This transport ship is currently the only one of its kind but other teams around the world are working on this topic. "The technology is ready," says Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation at Rolls-Royce. In an official report on his vision for "smart boats' ("Remote and Autonomous Ships. The next step"), the motor manufacturer predicts that the first large autonomous cargo ships will set sail by 2020.

Steering from a distance

These automated boats will be remote-controlled by networks of sensors made of cameras, radars, infrared systems, GPS and sonars, which will survey maritime space both on the surface and underwater. The networks will be linked permanently via satellite to control rooms equipped with virtual reality simulators displaying the view from the ships' bridge. Captains will supervise the routes to ensure smooth proceedings. "These ships navigate by sending their position and speed to the control center. The system will be able to identify not only other ships crossing their path but also icebergs and all other forms of obstacles. The captains will then be able to remotely supervise multiple ships at the same time," says the group.

Their approach is not only theoretical. Partnered with maritime transport companies Finferries and ESL Shipping, Finland's Tampere University of Technology and the analyst team Brighthouse Intelligence, Rolls-Royce is currently investing 6.6 million euros ($7.9 million) in a life-size test — the Awaa project — to explore the economic, social and legal factors necessary to the production of future autonomous ships.

The preliminary sector specifications will permit other teams to accelerate their pace. For example, the Bourbon group (the global number two company in offshore services) announced this past summer that it will rejoin the project for the offshore automated ship Hrönn, commissioned by the British group Automated Ships in November 2016. The team decided to invest in markets for petroleum prospecting, offshore wind power, aquaculture and hydrography, which demand resources for surveillance, security and food supply. Their ship will be a single-hulled steel vessel, 37 meters long. Testing will take place in the Trondheim fjord, where the Norwegian government authorized trials of this nature in relatively protected aquatic environments.

The maritime industry sees only advantages to engaging in this field. The security of maritime transport could be reinforced in a sector where, according to the insurance company Allianz, between 75% and 96% of losses at sea are due to human error. Without a crew, these ships could be optimized for carrying more containers and goods, while economizing the cost of labor. BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, is looking further into this possibility. The company estimates that the deployment of automated fleets would save the global maritime industry $86 billion per year, and is now working to have all its annual transport — about 1,500 trips to transport 250 million tonnes of iron ore, copper and coal — on automated ships within a decade.

The technology is ready.

The military is just as partial to automation. The Office of Naval Research (ONR), the American naval research bureau, is working to "drone-ify" surveillance boats in the style of aerial drones. Its teams have developed an automated coordination kit, Caracas ("Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command And Sensing"), that armies can install on request in fleets of small boats. During a live demonstration in the fall of 2016, ONR presented a small fleet of four pneumatic ships capable of not only spotting an intruding ship in a determined maritime zone, but also of choosing some to analyze the threat and, if necessary, escort it outside the zone.

If the technology for guidance and supervision are more or less mastered, standing up to piracy, both physical and informational, will be another matter. Rolls-Royce imagines ships with curved sides to prevent boarding and ones without ladders, while its partners are studying solutions in cyber-security, including satellite control with a scope of up to 3,500 nautical miles.

There still remains the social question: a study done by the Bank of England in 2015 estimates that the current wave of maritime automatization could leave 15 million employees out of work.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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