Automated Ships?

In a world where autonomous cars have become all the rage of the future, it may be easily overlooked how close the technology is coming to seaborne transportation. The world’s first crew less, automated cargo ship will launch in 2018, reports the Wall Street Journal, and is expected to be fully autonomous by 2020. The Norwegian-built Yara Birkeland will use GPS, radar, cameras, and sensors to navigate itself around other boat traffic and dock on its own. It’s anticipated to cost around $25 million, which is about three times as much as a standard container ship of the same size. But investors say without the need for fuel or crew, annual operating costs would be cut by up to 90 percent. The vessel will become autonomous in stages.

The 100-container Birkeland is being jointly developed by agriculture firm Yara International and technology company Kongsberg Gruppen. It’s been dubbed the “Tesla of the Seas,” and is scheduled in late 2018 to start delivering fertilizer from a production facility to the port of Larvik about 37 miles away. The vessel will also cut emissions, and the company plans to reduce air pollutants while improving rad safety by removing up to 40,000 truck journeys in populated urban areas.

Rolls Royce is another company strongly entwined in efforts to fully automate cargo ships in the near future, and they have revealed concept designs for an autonomous ship that could be managed remotely form a control center. Operators would be able to monitor vessels by a remote link, and they will be able to carry out diagnostics and deploy drones to perform further inspections.

There are many proposed benefits to autonomous shipping, including reduction in shipping costs by decreasing the number of human operators and labor, but ensuring the progress comes with heightened safety will be the biggest challenge. All the technological building blocks are in place to construct and control robotic ships. What could prove to be more challenging, though, are the regulatory changes required to allow such ships to operate. At the moment, global shipping regulations are unclear about whether these ships would be permitted, how they could be insured, and who would be legally liable in the event of an accident.