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How Autonomous Technology Will Impact the Marine Industry

  • by: Conor McKeon
  • On: 4, Dec 2018
3 min read

Autonomous technology is impacting every industry involved with transportation. Autonomous vehicles, ocean cleaning drones, even autonomous planes: autonomous technology is changing how we think about getting from one place to another.  

How Autonomous Technology Will Impact Shipping

Autonomous technology has huge implications for the shipping industry, which transports around 90% of the world’s goods. The shipping industry has been accused of being slow to adopt new technology as other industries utilise it to move forward and deliver services better, faster and more reliably – as the global supply chain becomes more data-driven and connected, so too will ships become smarter, and boats will eventually be able to sail without a single human aboard.

We will likely see autonomous haulers in the next ten years. The UK Ship Register has already signed its first unmanned ship and launched an industry code of practice for the design of autonomous ships. Japanese Yara and Norwegian Kongsberg joined forces to launch Yara Birkeland, the world’s first zero-emissions, fully electric and autonomous container ship to start fully unmanned operation by 2020.

How Autonomous Ships Would Work

Autonomous technology works by capturing vast amounts of data through sensors, inputting that data into a computer which can determine the best course of action by running that data through an algorithm.

A ship’s algorithm would have to contend with many factors to determine how to sail. Speed, fuel consumption, water depth, cargo weight, weather conditions, shipping routes and hydrodynamics would all be considered and factored into an ultimate decision, which would then be constantly reconsidered and reappraised considering new data. The autonomous ship would have situational awareness thanks to its sensors and would use machine learning to refine how it reacts to different stimuli.

The reduction of humans on ships would mean less weight, and so greater fuel efficiency or the ability to carry more cargo. By removing crew costs, shipping companies could save as much as 30% of voyage costs.

Autonomous ships and smart ports will be able to communicate, sharing data between them which can be analysed for greater optimisation, and a significant reduction in human error which some estimate at 75-96% of cases. An interesting potential side effect of the elimination of human workers onboard is the reduction of piracy, as there would be no crew to take hostage for leverage.

The One Sea initiative is aiming for completely autonomous commercial maritime traffic by 2025. This complex marine ecosystem is a global mission to create a network of organisations that work together for a more efficient and responsive fleet.

How to Integrate Autonomous Technology with the Shipping Industry

Arguably the biggest challenge to the Marine industry is fitting existing ships with the technology to become autonomous. A complete suite of everything needed to give a ship the ability to pilot itself would cost millions, as well as extensive modifications to the body of the ship itself.

Beyond that, the legal implications of self-piloting ships are still being discerned. The International Maritime Organisation is working on a framework definition of ‘autonomous’ in the context of shipping and will then begin work on implementing the legislation to ensure the continued safety of the shipping industry and the Marine ecosystem.

Read about How The Superyacht Industry Will Change Over The Next Ten Years, or learn about How Augmented Reality Will Change Naval Battles.

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