Autonomous Ships: The World of Tomorrow is Coming Sooner Than You Think

Self-driving tractor trailers might be making some headlines, but they aren’t the only autonomous vehicle making waves. When it comes to moving freight from A to B, there’s nothing that comes close to the heavy hauler that is the cargo ship. Japanese shipbuilders and freight companies are coming together to engineer a cargo vessel that can set its own course. According to the Guardian, they plan to launch a fleet of 250 self-navigating cargo ships by 2025.

“Plenty of people have been building modest autonomous boats in recent years, but the real payoff is in something much larger. As the Economist has pointed out in the past, fully robotic cargo ships could be faster, safer, and ultimately cheaper to run than their crewed counterparts. And that promise obviously hasn’t escaped the attention of some of the world’s largest users of maritime freight,” says MIT’s Technology Review.

So what would be driving the vessels? The goal is to create an onboard AI (artificial intelligence) system that, armed with a full array of data sensors and input from other sources, could navigate the safest and most efficient route. The Japanese consortium working on the project is optimistic to have 250 self-driving vessels ready to be built by as early as 2025.

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Customers Are Already Lining Up

Much like any new piece of technology, there are already eager customers ready to get their hands on the hot new gadget. Among the first in line are BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, according to Bloomberg reports. Rio Tinto isn’t new to the automated scene either, having already replaced many of their mining trucks with automated versions. With the millions of tons of iron and copper ores as well as coal, it’s estimated that the two giant mining companies could save as much as $86 billion per year by switching over to automated shipping vessels.

Norwegian chemical company, Yara, is already starting to dip their toes in the automated waters. Recently, Yara announced that they would begin trials for the world’s first fully electric automated container ship. This vessel will sail from the Porsgrunn production plant, along with the coast, to the ports of Brevik and Larvik in 2018. While it will be fully crewed to start, Yara hopes to have the vessel remote controlled by 2019 and then completely autonomous by 2020.

The World of Tomorrow is Coming Soon

These projects are starting to turn what was once a futuristic idea into something tangible, following the vision outlined by Roll-Royce last year.

“Long-term, the British engineering firm predicts a future in which cargo ships ply the seas without a single crew member aboard. It reckons that a crewless ocean-going cargo ship could be sailing by 2035. But, just like the first wave of driverless cars, ships will gain features, such as autonomous navigation, incrementally. And for the shipping industry, it seems those increments can’t come soon enough,” the MIT Technology Review says.

While the idea of a crewless ship sounds grand, what happens when things go awry? Well, there’s already a solution in place for that, drones. Maersk is already piloting a program that could use drones to make deliveries to ships and investigate any potential hazards without risking human lives.

“Drones can make savings in both costs and time. There are high costs for on-board delivery of small parcels, filled with urgent spare parts or mail, because of the need for a barge.” — MARKUS KUHN, SUPPLY CHAIN MANAGER AT MAERSK TANKERS

When considering this in conjunction with the potential that automated trucks can bring to the industry, it creates an exciting prospect for the future indeed. However, as we’re still more or less in the development stage, there’s not much we digital freight forwarders can do now but watch and wait.

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