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My first boss: Meet the co-founder behind shipping’s first autonomous voyage

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·4-min read
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Dor Raviv was in high-level meetings with senior Naval commanders aged 22. Photo: Orca AI
Dor Raviv was in high-level meetings with senior Naval commanders aged 22. Photo: Orca AI

Israeli Dor Raviv is a maritime expert, the CTO and co-founder of Orca AI, the developer of advanced smart navigation and collision avoidance for the shipping industry.

Orca has raised over $15m (£12.3m), has 50 staff and this year concluded the world’s first autonomous voyage for a commercial ship. Around 100 vessels use Orca’s technology worldwide while its ‘AI captain’ platform reduces the amount of near misses vessels have by around 30%.

I was a maritime instructor in the Israeli Navy and trained around 200 combat soldiers. By the end of my mandatory military service, I had a few months without any projects. My first commander, Shay, said there was this new technology being tried inside the Navy and he said I should visit the Israeli Defence Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv and ask questions. It was like going from West Point or Sandhurst to Washington.

I met some high-ranking officers and they needed someone to write the manual for fully autonomous ships which the Navy was trialling. This was 15 years ago and my remit was to go to the security companies and to learn about the systems. A manual for a drone ship had never been done before, so I visited the Israeli Air Force and learnt the fundamentals of remote control and aviation.

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I was a highly-valued officer and I was invited to discussions all the way to the Navy admiral on the future of autonomy. I was sitting in top-level meetings as a 22-year-old. But it was all opportunistic and it paved the way for where I am today at Orca AI.

Shay was a unique major in the Israeli Navy. He had captured a terrorist ship in the 1970s — chasing them throughout the marine border of Israel and Lebanon — and when he was discharged, he went into teaching and then returned as a major. An out-of-the-box thinker, he gave a lot of freedom and ownership to the commanders. This was the first time that a global military organisation had put their hands on this kind of drone technology.

Orca AI aims to reduce 4,000 accidents per year at sea
Orca AI aims to reduce 4,000 accidents per year at sea. Photo: Orca AI

After leaving the Navy and then university I started to work in the Israeli start-up scene where I learnt about data analysis, how to build infrastructure in code and value the power of technology.

At one company, Cortica, we were a team of six engineering students before the company decided to fire all of us after a few months. They took me aside and said the reason for the cull was that I had written a code programme which automated all the team’s work in a bigger scale, and quicker. That was a pivotal moment for me; understanding what was immediate, important, prioritising and value automation. I had basically done the work of 17 people.

As a technical manager, it has shaped me to empower employees and give them questions and let them solve it. AI-based navigation is complex and multi-disciplinary, with lots of simulations and calibrations.

When a vessel goes out to sea, you try to think what the biggest pitfalls will be — and that is where my experiences come through.

AI-based navigation is complex and multi-disciplinary, says Orca AI's co-founder
AI-based navigation is complex and multi-disciplinary, says Orca AI's co-founder. Photo: Orca AI

We want to reduce 4,000 accidents per year at sea. What we are building at Orca is not just for the purpose of safety and avoiding collisions, we are modelling and building the first ‘captain’s brain’. It is made out of events, memories and experiences. The importance of data collection is crucial, where we gather from around 100 ships which automatically shows any event that causes it to change course or speed. We collect the data and then we model an algorithm to mimic that behaviour.

In the future we are looking to build something that is similar to an unmanned bridge. You would still have people on board but, in cases of good visibility and open sea, the vessel would be making its own decisions with or without human intervention.

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The future of autonomous ships is one where we also want to attract a younger generation to be involved with these huge ships, given that it’s not the most attractive role today.

I hadn’t spoken to him for 10 years but I think Shay foresaw where the journey would take me since working under him. With entrepreneurs you always work for the end goal. What I feel is that my life’s experiences — coming from a maritime family where we’ve sailed across the world — mean that I don’t have an end goal. I want to build something that will change an industry, one I feel very connected to.

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