The Rise of Roboships

‘AI, Captain!’

Before most of us have even had the chance to step into a self driving car, autonomous technology has taken to the seas. Over the next 20 years, maritime businesses plan to transport goods across the ocean in roboships that navigate themselves. European and Asian companies seem to be on the same wavelength, and have already set up agreements and testing areas. Autonomous shipping could lead to safer, more efficient and cheaper journeys, but they aren’t an investment that can be taken lightly. So, how do self sailing ships work, and how will they disrupt the maritime industry?

First land vehicles, now vessels. . . 
Autonomous ships will work much like any other autonomous transportation method, using data from sensors and external sources to map the world around them. They’ll then applying this information to routes, docking and loading. Metrics will be vital in predicting weather conditions, avoiding obstacles, dealing with ocean traffic and keeping the ship itself running efficiently. At first, crews will be aided by remote support. The next step is to send remote controlled ships into coastal waters, and eventually into the ocean. After that, AI will supposedly take care of the journey without human intervention. A giant collaboration between Japanese shippers and shipmakers is aiming for 2025 as the benchmark for fully independent liners, and Norwegian company Yara International plans to send a remote controlled ship across the sea by 2019.

UK automaker and manufacturer Rolls Royce has predicted that human crews are finally forced to abandon ship in 2035, which is perhaps a more realistic estimate. The implementation of autonomous liners is going to be a long process, as human intervention is gradually replaced by automated platforms. That being said, technology moves at an unprecedented rate. Looking forward, self sail tech could be used for cruise ships, fishing boats, and basically any other sea faring vessel. But how will this affect the cargo shipping industry, not to mention the businesses that use it?

How disruptive are autonomous ships?
Self navigating ships could provide a cheaper, faster and safer way of transporting goods which could be applied to essentially all industries. Two of the biggest global mining companies, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, have set their sights on autonomous shipping to ferry iron ore, copper and coal. For iron ore alone, ditching crewed vessels could save the mining giants $86 billion a year. Theoretically, this could do the same for other raw materials, as well as finished products. Not only could autonomous cargo ships be cheaper, but they could be more efficient too. Instead of requiring countless crew members to verify a change of course, for instance, it would happen instantaneously. Self navigation systems are also supposedly safer, using masses of data to track the environment and the state of the ship itself. It won’t all be plain sailing, though. Unfortunately, taking away crews will take away a lot of jobs. According to the International Maritime Organisation, the cargo shipping industry employed 1.5 million seafarers in 2010, not including those based on shore. Other obstacles to adoption include expense, lack of resources and, for American and European players, an AI talent shortage. On top of this, the ocean is a tempestuous and unpredictable environment in which experienced crewmembers can be vital. If something goes wrong that isn’t recognised as a data point, will artificially intelligent systems be able to deal with it? Incumbent businesses will also need to uproot their existing systems to accommodate autonomous tech.

We’re a long way off for fully self sailing ships, but their development presents yet another example of mass automation. Whilst autonomous cargo ships have obvious benefits, they also have some serious setbacks that need to be considered. As shown by the hundreds of millions of dollars invested by Japanese organisations, they’re going to be very expensive – especially for legacy companies with outdated infrastructures. They’ll also lead to unemployment, although workers will still be needed to check over and help load cargo ships. Even though crewless ships won’t be easy to implement, the huge reductions in time and cost are incredibly attractive to businesses. For the numerous Japanese companies involved in the autonomous shipping project, Yara International and Rolls Royce, the potential for positive disruption appears to be well worth the effort.

Could crewless ships be sailing the seas in the next ten years? Will Japan become the global leader in self navigation technology? Are autonomous ships really safer than crewed alternatives? Share your thoughts.