Are Crewless Container Ships The Future Of Sea Freight?

Crewless ships may be the stuff of horror fiction, but one day they could be just another part of modern life. Rather than drifting aimlessly through the desolate ocean after the entire crew have undergone some terrible fate, the vessels will be guided by the most advanced technology. 

Leading the way towards fully autonomous vessels is the Yara Birkeland, a small Norwegian ship based out of the port of Brevik. It can carry up to 100 containers, and has been making twice-weekly experimental voyages over the past few months to collect data along a short route, with a minimal crew of five.

The eventual aim is to reduce the number of crew until the vessel can be technically autonomous. The Captain of the Yara Birkeland, Svend Ødegård, spoke to the BBC recently. He said:  “We are taking big steps towards autonomy. There’s a lot of installed technology there, that is not on existing ships.”

“We have situational awareness – cameras on the side, front and stern of the ship. It can decide whether to change its path because something is in the way.”

The radar and cameras are linked up to artificial intelligence which is capable of identifying obstacles in the ship’s path and altering the route accordingly. The ship will still be captained but remotely from dry land, with one person potentially in charge of several vessels at once. 

Sinikka Hartonen, is Secretary General of One Sea Association, an alliance of maritime companies and experts working in autonomy. She said: “Vessels which operate along short, regular and fixed routes offer good opportunities to introduce autonomous ship technologies.” 

However, there are a lot of new legal rules and regulations to deal with first, which will probably be the biggest hurdle to faster progress. This may prove to be off-putting for the large commercial container shipping companies who may view the whole process as bad for business. 

Despite this, potential savings on fuel and emissions from optimal route selections may prove to be a major incentive for shipping companies to invest in crewless technology. 

Hartonen told the BBC that the International Maritime Organization is now working towards a framework. She added: “Current legislation has been developed based on the presumption that the equipment onboard a ship is fully manually controlled.” 

The autonomous vessels will have to be rigorously tested to demonstrate how safe they are, much like the process driverless land vehicles are undergoing with varying degrees of success at the moment. It is likely that completely unmonitored vessels will never be a possibility for safety reasons. 

As well as container shipping, there may be demand for AI-guided fishing vessels, passenger ferries, and military vessels. In 2022, a Japanese car ferry made an unmanned voyage and self-docked with the help of technology developed by the Mitsubishi Shipping Company. 

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