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How Autonomous Ships Can Reduce Traffic (And Why That Matters)

  • by: Ryan Abbot
  • On: 21, May 2019
3 min read

The autonomous ship market is expected to be worth $13.8 billion by 2030. Global trade and transportation by shipping is growing, and responsible for an increasing demand for autonomous technology.

This is beneficial in a number of ways, but one that many have not necessarily considered is that if there are more efficient ships, there will be less HGVs and lorries on the roads. But why is this important?

Why We Need Autonomous Ships

A significant amount of transportation in Europe is done on the road. This is leading to heavy traffic, reduced efficiency, and pollution. There are currently over six million trucks on the roads in the EU.

However, shipping is still one of the most efficient ways to transport bulk goods, and renewable sources of energy are being implemented and improved all the time. Many top-level executives in the industry foresee the next generation of ships being completely electric, and autonomous.  

The Yara Birkeland is one of the most impressive ships currently undergoing autonomous trials. Aiming to be the first fully electric, fully autonomous cargo ship, it could revolutionise the industry.

When the Yara Birkeland goes fully autonomous in 2022, it will take take around 40,000 lorry journeys off the road a year. This will not only decrease emissions, but should also improve road safety thanks to the reduced traffic.

Scandinavia is currently leading the field of autonomous shipping, but other countries are also investing heavily. The port of Rotterdam is aiming to be the first smart port to be able to receive and cater for autonomous ships by 2030.

How Autonomous Ships Work

A fully autonomous ship will have an operating system that can calculate risks, make changes to courses, and react to new or unplanned situations. It will also need sensors able to detect what's around it, and the ability to communicate with a central base of operations, even when out at sea. It’s not just new cutting-edge ships being designed to be autonomous, older ships could be retrofitted with the technology. However, upgrading a ship to be fully autonomous can cost between $20,000 - $35,000.

Rolls-Royce have already successfully operated a retrofitted tugboat through an existing mobile network. This technology only took them two years to research, develop, and implement successfully, showing just how fast this field is progressing.

It’s important to understand that even a fully autonomous ship would still not be unmanned. While there wouldn’t be as large a crew as on a traditional ship, there would still need to be a team of highly trained specialists onboard to make repairs or alterations. Autonomous ships are more complicated to run than other vehicles, as they’re part of a much larger network, constantly interacting with each other.

New Marine Legislation For Autonomous Ships

The main problem stopping autonomous shipping from becoming a reality isn’t actually the technology, most of this already exists thanks to autonomous vehicle research. New technology means new legislation, and there is currently almost no legal framework for how autonomous shipping would work or be regulated, either in port or out at sea. This will need to be agreed upon by legal bodies around the world to ensure maximum safety for any crew living and working on the ships, as well as for commercial entities to operate under.

Over the next few years we will likely see autonomous ships making more journeys across the oceans.

Read more about what the shipping industry can do to reduce pollution, or learn about the history of the boat.

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