Are autonomous ships the future of smart shipping?

30 September 2019


Autonomous drones are increasingly commonplace and driverless cars are lauded as the future of automobiles, but you don’t often hear shipping spoken about in the same breath.

But, within the shipping industry, autonomy is no longer the stuff of fantasies. Rolls-Royce Marine and Nippon Yusen are among the firms  ready to seize these new opportunities – the former predicts that by 2035 oceangoing shipping will be totally autonomous and totally unmanned.


Is autonomous shipping the next big thing?

Soon, the typical container ship may be equipped with sophisticated systems for measuring its own health, sensing its surroundingsand making smart decisions about its route. It may not be totally autonomous – asmall crew may remotely control some of the ship’s operations – but it will offer considerable advantages to safety and efficiency.

With only a skeleton crew on hand, a driverless ship will more efficiently use space, personnel and fuel, and will allow shipping firms to optimise their operations and reduce the likelihood of human error. This is a vital in a sector in which between 75% and 96% of all shipping accidents are the result of mistakes made by crew.

According to Oskar Levander, Senior Vice President of Concepts and Innovation, Digital & Systems of Rolls-Royce, switching to an unmanned operation could save a smaller container ship between 10 and 22 per cent – more than the cost saving of cutting fuel by 50 per cent.


Who is leading the innovation?

Small shipping firms are leading the way. Norwegian chemical company Yara is developing the Yara Birkeland, an autonomous ship that will follow short, set paths to carry chemicals and fertiliser from its production plant to local towns. The ship won’t launch until 2020, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.

In May this year, a British autonomous, uncrewed vessel, the USV Sea-Kit Maxlimer completed a cargo run across the English Channel, between Tollesbury in Essex and Ostend in Belgium. Although unable to operate totally autonomously, it used its range of technologies to navigate one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, overseen remotely by a control room in Britain.


What challenges are involved?

Some commentators are less bullish about the prospects of autonomous shipping. Commander David Dubay of the United States Coast Guard points out in an editorial for Maritime Executive that the relative safety of an autonomous ship is ‘pure speculation’, and remarks that – at least while the technology remains in its infancy – a crew will still be required in the event of faults, making the much-vaunted space and staff efficiency a falsehood.

But one of the biggest barriers is still technology, in particular battery storage, which is still underdeveloped compared to AI and telematics systems. Modern batteries simply do not have the capacity to power a large container ship, and the lithium ion batteries currently used for automated vehicles require strict temperature control to operate properly.

Other issues include the prohibitive expense or designing and operating an autonomous vessel, and the potential threat from ever-more sophisticated hackers and terrorists who could seek to interfere with the technology or hijack the unmanned ship.

It is also true, as in other industries, that the advent of autonomous shipping will simply eliminate thousands of jobs, hitting workers who rely that income hard. However, in replacing mariners with more expensive technical workers hired to operate autonomous ships, shipping firms may find their cost-savings totally reversed.


Intermodal Europe is embracing the transformation

The opportunities of autonomous shipping are enormous, but experts are still debating exactly what the implications will be for the container shipping sector. At Intermodal Europe, taking place in Hamburg on 5-7 November, industry leaders will come together to discuss these key opportunities.

Attend the IoT and Smart Container Forum, taking place in the Innovation Theatre on Wednesday 6 November, for presentations and discussions about the transformative technologies entering the container shipping market, or attend the Blockchain Technology and the Digitised Supply Chain seminars of Tuesday 5 November to discover how blockchain can create an automated supply chain.

Sign up for your free ticket today and learn more about these innovations