WAYPOINT : Looking into a future of one hundred eyes

31 May 2024 The Navigator

George Shaw from the Royal Institute of Navigation looks into his crystal ball to explore how innovations in ‘panoptic vision’ and artificial intelligence might support mariners in the future in navigating areas of restricted visibility

The mythological giant, Argus, was an all-seeing 'watchkeeper' blessed with one hundred eyes. Human mariners only have two, but it is not impossible to imagine that technological advances could ultimately offer them their own version of all-weather, panoptic vision. Enhanced and synthetic vision concepts, historically used for landing aircraft in reduced visibility, are developing rapidly, with multispectral sensing and machine vision now being explored for autonomous vehicles.

Sensor innovation

By comparison, navigating the marine environment in fog is more challenging. Aids for future maritime all-weather navigation and collision avoidance place greater demands on innovations in sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) image processing and pattern recognition. Such powerful techniques should aim to provide all-round 'vision' and alerts, improving safety if mariners remain vigilant and mindful of their limitations, but ultimately also benefiting autonomous vessels.

Whilst light is dispersed by fog, other key maritime transmissions remain effective in conditions of restricted visibility. Radar, GPS and AIS/VHF continue to provide good positional and situational awareness, subject to their own inherent limitations and vulnerabilities. Radar is fundamental to collision avoidance, supported by AIS (when used cautiously for general awareness). In poor weather, appropriate choice of vessel speed and diligent lookout within visibility limits will remain vital, since no sensor combination is likely to offer complete capability for the foreseeable future, even with the help of AI.


Infrared imaging

Infrared (IR) sensors, mostly associated with night vision, do have some capability to 'see' through some fogs (though not when the fog is too dense). The enhanced vision of such thermal imaging has its own benefits, especially around offshore infrastructure. Due to how they sense temperature differences, the ranges of IR detectors can vary greatly according to the weather conditions. Vessels ;with distinct heat signatures may be conspicuous in fog at a much greater distance than visual range, but then disappear completely in rain or thicker fog. Not all obstacle surfaces exhibit sufficient temperature differences to be identified in this manner - for example, large mammals are unlikely to be detected.

Advances in AI

AI is already able to portray compelling digital representations of surroundings by combining and analysing optical images and extracting information from other sensors to complete the picture. This type of synthetic vision may one day be used to overlay computer-generated images on the real-world visual scene via head-up displays or helmet-mounted devices. A circular 'staring array' of optical sensors (potentially enhanced with IR sensing) and AI image processing could offer cohesive 360° panoramic views with embedded virtual cues. This would greatly assist mariners in highlighting key dangers and alerting them to possible interventions.

A future panoptic capability for mariners is feasible and would be particularly effective in good visibility and complex sea spaces containing multiple obstacles and heavy traffic. All-weather vision capability will, nevertheless, remain variable and limited, even with the possibility of AI integrating sensor images and data to reveal as much underlying information as possible.

A word of caution

Mariners must use AI and enhanced or synthetic vision aids with great care. No sensors are perfect. They can all suffer occasional missed detections, false alarms and measurement errors. AI can mitigate some effects, but its very nature (learning from experience and with big data sets) means that it will inevitably make mistakes while it learns. No single navigation source can be trusted absolutely and neither can any combination of AI.

Mariners must frequently cross-check all available sources of navigational information, both individually and in combination. Keeping a vigilant visual lookout and selecting appropriate vessel speeds will remain essential, even with the most technologically advanced 'AI navigators' supporting and learning by the mariner's side.

Contact RIN at: www.rin.org.uk | 1 Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AT | Tel: +44 (0)20 7591 3134