Autonomous Ships Ready to Sail and May Soon Replace Seafarers

by | Last updated May 9, 2024 | Industry Insights | 0 comments

Major players in the maritime industry are developing autonomous ships. Because of the exponential growth of today’s technology, these vessels will sail in the not-too-distant future.

We already have autonomous cars and remote-controlled planes. The shipping industry will soon be disrupted. 

We’ve come a long way from wooden ships to what we have today. The future is getting interesting for those who are prepared.

Shipping in the year 2030 will be about artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, nano-technology, and autonomous navigation.

Why Replace the Human Element?

The maritime industry has a long history of disasters and defeats. Even with the latest technology available on board, accidents continue to happen. 

The environmental damage lingers. Pollution costs and loss of human lives plagued the seas for centuries.

Titanic, MT Dona Paz, Exxon Valdez, Princess of the Stars, MV Rena, and the Costa Concordia are only a handful. 

They are infamous maritime disasters that turned the world’s attention to shipping.

Seafarers at Fault?

Here’s a fact: human error contributes around 75% to 96% of marine accidents according to research from Allianz Global. 

This means that huge sums of insurance claims are paid (and lost on the corporate side).

Accidents happening at sea shakes the world because the environmental effects are huge.

Yes, we all want cleaner oceans and safer ships to avoid losing the precious lives of our mariners. Some people think that vessel autonomy is the solution.

Shortage of Seafarers

The maritime industry projects shortages of competent seafarers in the future. Many shipowners already started taking action years ago to fill this gap. 

They create cadetship programs like the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association (NSA), IMEC, and other scholarship grants.

In Europe, there has been a decline in students taking seafaring careers. The maritime workforce in the EU region couldn’t keep up with the growth of the shipping industry. 

Even the entrance of women working on board today doesn’t fill that gap.

Machines Never Get Tired

People on board succumb to fatigue especially if the voyage is short and frequent. Rest hours and work hours are often the issue here. Less rest is often a contributing factor to human error.

Seafarers can only work efficiently for a certain number of hours. Without having enough rest greatly affects their performance.

For this reason, maritime authorities create strict regulations on rest and working hours. Vessel inspectors and Coast Guard personnel take these rules very seriously.

In cases with machines and equipment, they can function much longer with more uptime than humans.

Monitoring movement and situational awareness of unmanned ship.
An Augmented Reality (AR) ship simulator setup gives us a clue on how autonomous ships will likely be operated from ashore. Source: MUNIN Project

Cost Saving Potential

Modern smart ships will employ less crew on board. This means a reduction of expenses related to crewing like seafarer’s wages

Provisions, insurance, crew changes, training, visas, and welfare will also be cut.

Approximately 30% of a ship’s voyage costs are crew-related. Minimizing the human factor on board can be cost-effective. 

On the corporate side, replacing them with technology may preserve their profit margin.

Moreover, these autonomous ships will likely run on clean energy or natural gas. Thus, we can see a reduction in diesel and HFO costs. 

Besides, ship fuel is facing very tough rules on carbon emissions these days.

Why Autonomous Ships Are Closer to Reality Than You Think

I opened this topic to a few crew mates. As expected, they believe that unmanned vessels are close to impossibility. 

In their view, this technology would take another century to develop.

Looking at the day-to-day operation of the ship down to the micro level, we can all say that the naysayers are right. But considering the recent tech advances, it all points to automation.

Machines Taking Over

Today, machines are replacing a few of our industries. There are robots building high-tech cars. In fact, driverless vehicles now run around some major cities in the US and Europe.

You might already hear of unmanned spaceships. People launch spacecraft deep into outer space to collect rock samples. They also take photos without a crew on board.

Consider the stealth military drones. They launch precision strikes at terrorist bases from halfway around the world. 

Their pilots are safe in some remote locations while the drones take all the risks of getting shot.

I’ve been to a supermarket in La Coruna, Spain. They have a self-service checkout where you can pay for your items in front of an automatic teller machine. They’re very easy to use. Even grandpas can do it on their own.

If you come to think of it, the jobs of today already replaced the jobs of 100 years ago.

Automation On Board

In our own industry, commercial drones are now used to send documents to ships a few miles to the anchorage.

And who would forget the phasing out of Radio Officers who were used to be vital on board any ship?

We are all familiar with the operations of UMS or Unmanned Machinery Space in the engine room. 

A hundred years ago, who would have thought that engineers could leave the ER at night while they sleep in their cabins?

Then came the full implementation of the Electronic Chart and Information System (ECDIS). I know a lot of skeptics when this technology came out.

In fact, I was one of them. But technology proved us wrong as time goes by. Many ships today use electronic chart systems as their primary means for navigation.

Sailors going up and down the mast of a galleon ship with the sunset behind them.
Early sailors talking about how machines are not capable of replacing our jobs on board.

From the old sextant to LORAN to GPS and now DGPS, we have a clear idea of the trend here. Technology is helping the human element reduce the manning level of ships: 15 to 25 crew at the most.

Compare that to a hundred seafarers in a single ship a hundred years ago.

Autonomous Ships Early Development

Even with the spoofing incident of the GPS positions of some ships in the Black Sea area, the development of autonomous ships is still fully ahead.

There are already unmanned surface vehicles in operation using this technology. Most of them are small boats that operate on the water’s surface. 

Researchers use them for oceanographic purposes and data collection.

Even the US Navy utilizes autonomous drone ships for security purposes.

Remotely operated vehicles (ROV) dive deep into oceans for exploration and research missions. This technology has been in operation for many years.

Those applications may be small but today, big boys are joining the race. Companies are investing in the development of unmanned ships.

Major Players

In 2020, the first zero-emission container ship Yara Birkeland will be completed. This vessel, from Norwegian shipbuilder Vard Holdings, will run with full autonomy in 2024!

After acquiring Rolls Royce’s autonomous marine division for USD660M, Kongsberg has partnered with Wilhelmsen to develop unmanned technology for ships.

The result of this partnership will first be fitted on board Yara Birkeland.

A Simulation: Shore-based control center for unmanned vessels.

Funded by the European Commission, the MUNIN Project, or Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks came to life. 

Its objective is to examine the feasibility of unmanned vessels through data gathering.

In March 2019, the Dutch Joint Industry Project conducted a series of operational trials off the Netherlands coast. 

The goal of that venture is to study the decision-making process of an autonomous system. They will use their research findings to enhance safe sailing and collision avoidance.

UK-based Rolls-Royce successfully launched the first fully autonomous ferry. The vessel sailed between Parainen and Nauvo, Finland without a crew last December 2018.

US and Asia

Samsung Heavy Industries is also into the game. They’re investing in machine learning, virtual reality, augmented reality, and database analytics. The result of that research will be used in building vessels with unmanned operation capability.

Similarly, Sea Machines Robotics, a Boston-based start-up has partnered with shipping giant AP Moller Maersk.

SMR will use one of Maersk’s vessels to install its advanced perception technology. 

They plan to test and track its situational awareness capability paving the way for autonomous shipping.

A pilot boat made by Sea Machines having sensors that detects situational awareness.
Making vessels intelligent using technology created by Sea Machines Robotics.

China is setting up a huge 225-square-mile test zone for crew-less vessels in partnership with Wuhan University of Technology.

A group of Japanese shipping lines have formed a consortium to build remote-controlled cargo ships by 2025.

Do We Have The Technology?

While the rest of the world waits and watches, some companies are investing and creating a trend for autonomous ships.

Technology such as machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and big data analytics is available today. 

Together with lidar (light radar) and high-sensitivity sensors, these machines will work hand in hand to replace most human functions.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla cars, plans to wrap the planet with thousands of artificial satellites. 

He aims to make internet connectivity available for everyone even when you are in the middle of the ocean!

With the entry of the 5G Internet, the Internet of Things (IoT) could evolve on an unimaginable scale. 

While a 4G connection gives us a maximum of 10 gigabits per second, 5G has a whooping speed of 20 gigabits per second at its peak!

Combine all these things and you have the infrastructure needed for unmanned ships.

Crewless or Crew Less?

While most of the hype portrays a crewless vessel navigating, docking/ undocking, cargo operations, ballasting and deballasting, there are actually four degrees of autonomy defined today.

Degree One

Ship with automated processes and decision support:

Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated and at times unsupervised. 

However, seafarers on board are ready to take control.

Degree Two

Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board:

The Captain controls and operates the ship from another location. Seafarers are still available on board. 

Whenever emergencies happen, they are ready to take over shipboard systems and functions.

Smart ship concept with augmented reality.
Source: DNV-GL

Degree Three

Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board:

The “Captain” controls and operates the ship from another location. There are no seafarers on board.

Degree Four

Fully autonomous ship:

The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

The first and second levels of autonomy still require human presence. However, there may not be as many as we have today. 

A minimum number of crew members with deep knowledge of the technology will man the ship.

The third degree of autonomy replaces the human element on board and puts him in a remote location. Ships make their own decision and the person in charge only supervises its behavior. The “Captain” will take over the control if necessary.

Container ship designed by Rolls Royce running on autonomous vessel technology

Fourth autonomy gives the machine full control of the ship. She will be able to handle collision avoidance, vessel reporting, and speed reduction. 

This crewless ship will also be capable of making course alterations and most day-to-day operations until she goes alongside.

Technicians may likely board for inspections during port stay or when emergencies happen.

For economic reasons, governments consider seamen as modern heroes in today’s age. But I guess these heroes are in need of saving as technology once again threatens their jobs.

Vessel automation could be near the horizon. However, there are plenty of challenges ahead.

Threats coming from port facility infiltration and the cyber world would be more frequent. 

Maritime security will thus be re-defined to cover the new threats associated with autonomous shipping.

May the winds be in your favor.




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