The race to autonomous shipping

Technology and Business

Phil Brown

Phil Brown



In a world of globalisation and interconnectivity, the ability to import products from pretty much anywhere in the world has created supply chains that often stretch across several countries, and in many cases, continents. Even though air and road freight are growing considerably, we still rely heavily on a mode of transport that we’ve been using for thousands of years – the ship.

According to the United Nations conference on trade and development, 11 billion metric tonnes of goods and products travelled by ship last year.


Although we’ve been sailing for thousands of years, humans still face plenty of challenges when it comes to maritime endeavours. No matter how much technology, training, experience and engineering we have out our disposal, it’s still a challenge for us to remain fed, watered and safe from the elements as we transport goods across the oceans.


Why not let an autonomous ship do the work?

Autonomous vehicles aren’t a new concept. From the unmanned aerial drones that carry out surveillance and military operations thousands of miles away from base to the already-existing driverless cars that will eventually ferry all passengers around our road networks, we’re beginning to leverage AI to do the navigating for us. It seems only natural for long, arduous sea journeys to be handed over to a computer too.


Autonomous ships could be either retrofitted, or built in a way where crew quarters, the bridge and other suddenly unnecessary features are removed to make more space for cargo. The ship could then be operated completely remotely. Shipping companies could deploy their navigators and captains to land-based bridges, or sub-contract the driving out to professional companies who become experts in remote ship operation. The other benefit is that shipping companies and navies can also save on recruitment costs.


Are you interested in other industries that could benefit from automation and autonomous vehicles? Read our article "Autonomous agriculture - the future of farming".


It doesn’t come as a surprise that driverless technologies are already being applied, or at least tested. Norwegian firm Yara International is busy working on the Yara Birkeland, a fully battery and solar-powered  and  autonomous container ship that is not only free from humans, but way than conventional diesel container ships that are most common.


It’s not just cargo that will be at the hands of AI either. Rolls Royce is on its way to creating a crewless car ferry – the Svan - alongside Finnish company Finnferry. Despite having a much more important cargo (passengers will ride the ferry with their vehicles), the Svan is fully capable of navigating complex waterways, avoiding buoys and other vessels and even docking safely at multiple destinations.

Ship control centre for autonomous journeys

Could autonomous ships also save lives?

One issue that has plagued shipping for centuries and continues to be a big problem to this day, is piracy. In several hotspots around the world, notably the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca, took place in 2019, with armed gangs using mostly speedboats to board ships. In the 21st century, however, cargo isn’t always the target, with the people who operate the ship sometimes more valuable than the goods being transported.


There’s the potential for the ship to be captured and held to ransom, with privately-owned companies potentially strong-armed into paying to have their employees returned safely.  This constant danger in certain hotspots means that around 80% of commercial ships now carry armed guards.


Another less visible issue that is becoming a growing concern on some vessels, especially those of the US Navy, is mental health. Working at sea comes with plenty of hazards, but the long-term isolation and pressures of living in small quarters with thousands of other personnel can have negative effects on wellbeing. In September 2019, three people on the same US Navy vessel took their own lives, and the suicide rate on ships in the US Navy now sits at 20.1 out of every 10,000 personnel. Compared to the civilian rate of around  13 per 100,000 in the US, this growing figure represents a concerning welfare challenge for the Navy.


If the number of people needed to operate a ship could be reduced, or indeed removed completely, then these hazards, both physical and mental, could also be addressed – which could be especially important in active warzones.


And even beyond these important factors, there’s the  . Just like we see on the roads across the planet, our own inability to react quick enough or potentially make the right decision at the right moment is suddenly removed by a machine that can compute the conditions quicker than we can. And in an industry where 46 large ships were lost at sea last year accounting for losses in the hundreds of millions, the argument for removing humans from the bridge lands in the accounts department as well as the health and safety department.

autonomy versus human safety

A symbolic autonomous shipping journey 

In 1620, one of the history’s most important ships set off from Plymouth harbour. Carrying a group of pilgrims fleeing persecution for their religious beliefs, the Mayflower is synonymous with the colonisation of the Americas and an important feature of history lessons both in the US and around the world.


To mark 400 years since this epic voyage, IBM, the University of Plymouth and marine research company ProMare are recreating the journey made by the Mayflower pilgrims, but this time without a single soul on board.


Thanks to thousands of hours of research in Plymouth Harbour and some of the most cutting-edge hardware and AI, including an IBM Power AC922 server fitted with Nvidia V100 Tensor Core GPUs, this tech will provide super-powerful processing of information, including weather patterns, wind, sea behaviour and obstacle collision vectors.


Although many larger ships do have an autopilot or some sort of automated navigation system, the reality is that they need a human operating alongside the computer, both as a failsafe and to make important decisions on courses and weather avoidance. According to the Mayflower Autonomous Ship’s CTO Don Scott, the Mayflower project is far-removed from these ‘robotic’ systems, with the technologies deployed on the Mayflower able to “give the ship the ability to operate independently in some of the most challenging circumstances on the planet.”


The idea behind the Mayflower project is not just to celebrate 400 years of maritime history, however. It’s also a showcase of involved manufacturers’ technologies that are ready to be fitted to vessels much larger than the multi-hull, composite yacht that will make its way across the Atlantic. Intel and Nvidia, the two biggest players in the project, already have concerns in the world of driverless vehicles, so crossing over to water-based autonomous navigation could well be a move to ensure they are deploying their technologies in as many markets as possible.



The ethics of autonomous shipping 

intelligence camera operated control centre for ships

Despite all the benefits of taking people off ships, there’s also the fact that we’d be taking people off ships. The global demand for merchant seafarers stands at around 1,647,500 people, which would mean that there would be wholesale changes to the number of ‘traditional’ seafaring jobs available. However, this does not translate to 1.6 million lost jobs. Autonomous ships will naturally continue to need maintenance and of course manufacturing in the first place, plus the remote operation, training of AI and land-based operations will all still exist. Yes, there will be sweeping changes, and potentially some lost jobs, but in reality, autonomous ships could actually create more jobs that are actually safer than current roles.


With many workers redeployed, the ethical changes of giving maritime jobs to machines will of course be lessened. It could even work the other way. On land, driverless trucks are actually helping an industry where there are less truckers than ever before. With seafaring jobs potentially seeing the same changes in employee preference, companies that lean towards autonomous ships could solve a future recruitment problem before it happens.


The learnings for the autonomous driving world are clear; the more reliance we have on driverless vehicles, the more of an impact it will have on us not just from an economic perspective, but also regarding the structure of the job market. New job profiles will appear, existing ones will disappear. Higher qualification and newly evolving industries will play a key role here. 


Would you feel safe being ferried across rough seas by a computer? Do you think we should fast-track autonomous commercial shipping to keep people safe, or is it too risky to lose so many jobs?



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