Self Sailing Ships Are Coming

A wave of semi-autonomous technology takes to the seas

Self driving vehicles are dominating future mobility solutions. Almost every major transportation company is trying to build the most efficient options, while some even claim that they will reveal fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) within the next couple of years. But creating a reliable, safe, and operational AV is notoriously difficult. Roads are constantly changing to the extent that even sat nav systems can barely keep up – and that’s without the addition of unpredictable humans. Developing an autonomous ship, though, seems less challenging. Which companies are sticking their oar in, and will they sink or swim?

Cruising without crews

A number of maritime businesses are pursuing remote control and self sailing ships. Norwegian company Yara International plans to send remotely controlled vessels across the sea as early as next year, despite Rolls Royce’s suggestion that ships won’t be fully autonomous until 2035. That said, Yara is currently collaborating with Kongsberg and Cargotech to test an electric, autonomous ship that is expected to be deployed later this year. Logistics giant Maersk launched the first remotely operated commercial vessel in November 2017, and at this year’s Sea Japan conference speakers heralded the ‘autonomous shipping revolution’.

Sending an autonomous ship across the seas certainly seems ambitious, but it’s arguably much easier than land bound alternatives. Ocean traffic is far more forgiving than congested cities. Ships don’t have to adhere to changing road signals or dodge unpredictable human beings, and unlike road users they rarely have to change course. That said, ships won’t lose their crews straight away. Humans will need to guide remote and autonomous systems gradually. Maritime companies will be tasked with moving as quickly as possible to achieve autonomy, but not at the expense of future accidents or malfunctions that could have been avoided in the early development stages.

What needs to happen for ships to achieve autonomy?

Ships may not need to watch out for cyclists or excitable pets, but they do need to know where other ships, obstacles and ports are. Going across the ocean is the easy part. The real problems begin when a huge liner needs to enter a port to drop off a shipment. In this respect, the autonomous capabilities of ships will need to be as fine tuned as land based vehicles. Another obstacle is the weather. Without a skilled crew to guide a vessel through tempestuous conditions, the software that governs the ship needs to be able to handle sudden changes in the environment. Better still would be an autonomous ship that could predict a storm before it happened, and change course as a result. Sensors need to be both incredibly far reaching and sensitive to recognise a range of different obstacles. For example, a human crew would spot a small fishing boat easily and try to avoid it, but an autonomous ship does not have eyes. What it does have, though, is access to vast amounts of external sensors and historical data. When an unexpected situation arises, self sailing ships need to be able to use this information to make an informed decision. As shown by the advances of companies like Yara as well as automotive businesses, the technology is maturing at a steady rate. If we can discuss the possibility of hopping into a self driving vehicle on a bustling high street, then sending a crewless ship across the Atlantic suddenly doesn’t seem so hard to imagine.

The adoption of autonomous ships is expected to bring efficiency, safety, and simplicity to ocean travel, benefiting international logistics companies in particular. However, not all of the consequences will be positive. Crew reduction is set to continue as more processes become automated, but small human crews may be employed to watch over remote controlled ships and intervene when necessary. Even when ships become fully autonomous, it may be wise to retain experienced crew members to monitor performance.

Despite the buzz around autonomous vehicles, it looks like self sailing vessels could be making their way from port to port long before their land based equivalents. The maritime industry is famously conservative, but given that some self captained vessels are expected to set sail later this year, it’s clear that a number of global companies are moving at a rate of knots. For their legacy competitors, the ship may have sailed.

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