Autonomous Ships of the Future: Run by AI Instead of a Crew

Credit: Kongsberg Maritime

By AI Trends Staff

Efforts are underway especially by builders of cargo ships to use AI to deliver on the promise of autonomous ships. A fully autonomous ship would be considered a vessel that can operate on its own without a crew. Remote ships are those that are operated by a human from shore, and an automated ship runs software that manages its movements.

As the technology matures, more types of ships will likely transition from being manned to having some autonomous capabilities, according to an account in Forbes. Autonomous ships might be used for some applications, but very likely some crew will still be onboard ships even if all hurdles to acquiring a fully autonomous fleet are crossed.

Autonomy in Ships

As we saw with the collaboration between Rolls-Royce and Finferries, the state-owned ferry operator of Finland, the first autonomous ships will be deployed on simple inland or coastal liner applications where waters are calm, the route is simple, and there isn’t much traffic.

An inland electric container ship, Yara Birkeland, is under construction and is expected to be completed in 2020; fully autonomous by 2022. Some companies are building fully autonomous ships from scratch, while other start-ups are developing semi-autonomous systems to be used on existing vessels.

When Rolls-Royce sold its autonomous maritime division to Kongsberg for $660 million in 2018, it gave the Norwegian company a boost in its goal of being a leader in the autonomous shipping industry. Samsung is another company that uses machine learning, augmented reality, analytics, and more to create a smart shipping platform through its Samsung Heavy Industries division.

Existing cargo ships have the chance to get retrofitted with autonomous technologies thanks to the efforts of start-ups such as San Francisco-based Shone. Shone’s technology helps crews with piloting assistance and to detect and predict the movement of other vessels in the waterway.

The Benefits of Autonomous Ships

Several major players in the industry are predicting when they will have autonomous ships. Here is a look published by  emerj at underlying economic and safety factors driving adoption of this new technology.

Last year Mikael Makinen, president of Rolls-Royce Marine, declared that, “Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smart phone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations”

Globalization and international commerce is built on seaborne trade because it is often the most cost effective way to move large volumes of goods from one country to another. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimated that in 2015, total seaborne trade volume surpassed 10 billion tons for the first time — roughly a four-fold increase since 1970.

Cargo ships are normally a much slower option than cargo planes or even trucks, so their core advantage is usually being a much lower cost option. This is why the shipping industry is always trying to find ways to bring down operating expenses. To keep international volume increasing, the industry needs to make shipping as cheap as possible.

Autonomous boats can obviously offer the advantage of reducing/eliminating the expense of salaries and benefits for crew members. This is more important for smaller vessels, where crew costs make up a bigger share of total costs, but less important on larger ships. For large ships, the other potential cost savings go beyond mere reductions in personnel costs.

Efficiencies of Ships Without a Crew

Once the need for having humans on board is eliminated, the entire vessel can be radically redesigned to improve efficiency in new ways. For example, systems once needed to make the vessel livable for the crew can be removed entirely, simplifying the design.

The deckhouse that currently sits above the deck of ships, holding the crew and allowing them to steer the vessel, would no longer be required. This could open up more space for cargo, possibly making loading easier, or allow for a more aerodynamic profile.

When automation becomes viable, the industry isn’t planning to just make the same cargo ships they currently do minus crew. They are planning on making a whole new class of vessels re-envisioned from the ground up.

It seems likely that crew reduction will occur before total crew replacement. Until robots become dextrous enough to fix engines or complete other routine onboard tasks, humans may need to be in the loop – even if just in the case of emergencies.

Reducing Human Error and Risk

Autonomy also holds the promise of reducing human error and therefore bringing down costs related to accidents and insurance. According to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, between 75% and 96% of all accidents in the shipping sector can be attributed to human error. These incidents rank as the top cause of liability loss.

The Costa Concordia disaster is perhaps the most famous example of how much damage human error can cause when dealing with massive ocean-going vessels. The vessel ran aground and overturned after striking an underwater rock off Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, resulting in 32 deaths. This isn’t to say that machines would never make mistakes, but we might imagine that in time machines will make docking and navigation overall (just as automation plays a critical role for aircraft).

Predicted Timelines for Autonomous Boats to Hit the Water

Here are selected current projects and predicted timelines for autonomous shipping adoption:

1) Rolls-Royce Marine – Short Runs by 2020, Ocean Going by 2025
2) Kongsberg and Yara – 2020
3) Japanese Consortium – 2025


Read the source articles in Forbes and in emerj.