Bon voyage, captain (and crew). The first self-driving ships will soon set sail.

A Finnish group is opening the flood gates for testing autonomous cargo ships. Here’s what that could do to the global shipping economy and when.

An autonomous shipping consortium called One Sea recently launched with some of the biggest shipbuilders in the world such as Rolls Royce, Cargotec, and Meyer Turku. Borne from a Helsinki outfit called Digital, Internet, Materials & Engineering Co-Creation, One Sea has already taken the first step in changing the shipbuilding game: It has secured an autonomous ship testing area off the coast of Finland.

It’s easy to explain why people should be seriously interested in self-driving ships. About 90 percent of the world’s merchandise travels by ship at some point, and autonomous ships can do that work more safely, efficiently, and cheaply than traditional vessels, according to Oskar Levander, who’s vice president of Innovation, Engineering, and Technology for the Marine division at Rolls-Royce.

Autonomous cargo ships in development at Rolls-Royce would be equipped with on-board satellite guidance and decision support. Photo illustration courtesy of Rolls-Royce.

Consider these facts:

• The environmental and financial impact of fuel spills and lost cargo can be prohibitive. When a Danish ship lost some 500 containers in choppy seas in the Bay of Biscay in 2014, cleanup was about $200 million. If one of the new megaships goes down, experts predict a $2 billion salvage operation.

Since an estimated 96 percent of accidents on the high seas involve human error, it makes sense for shipbuilders to want to remove humans from the equation.

• The merchant marine is an inherently dangerous business. An estimated 1,051 cargo ship crewmembers were killed in 2012, according to Seafarers’ Rights International.

• Cargo ships have always been considered the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way of moving lots and lots of stuff. Freighters can transport one ton of cargo 526 miles on one gallon of fuel; a semitruck can only take a ton 59 miles on one gallon, and emits 10 times as much carbon dioxide. Autonomous ships are built to use even less fuel, which translates to significant cost savings.

In addition, the shipping industry is growing again, and with that growth comes a predicted human capital problem. Industry reports from last year estimated the current growth rate in shipping would require an estimated 147,500 new officers in the worldwide merchant fleet by 2025. Experts say there simply aren’t enough qualified officers to keep up with this growing demand. While the first autonomous ships will continue to carry crews, eventually those boats could be completely unmanned, which will allow the shipping industry to keep up with projected growth.

Once the testing sea in Finland opens later this year, it will be available to anyone who wants to test an autonomous ship. (“If autonomous shipping can work in the Baltic Sea,” says Harri Kulmala, chief executive officer of DIMECC, “it can work anywhere.”)

One of those vessels might be the Yara Birkeland, a fertilizer-carrying cargo ship developed by Kongsberg that’s set to launch in 2018 and start going autonomous in 2019. Rolls Royce’s first autonomous ship could set sail as early as 2020. Autonomous cargo projects are also in the works in Japan, Singapore, and China; small remote-controlled ferries are already operating in Norway and Germany.

Technology challenges are not the primary obstacle to launching these ships, says Kulmala. The autonomous systems and satellites are ready and in place for these vessels to begin running today. The industry itself is the bigger impediment, he says. It will take time to convince regulators and the broader shipping industry to embrace this new generation of cargo transport.

“Most maritime legislation comes from the 17th century and 18th century, and is based on how the world was in those days,” Kulmala says. “The basic rules and what kinds of players you have in the harbors and the logistics chain and value chain are outdated in the world of digital business. It’s a question of human behavior, which is risk-averse, change-resistant.”

Rolls-Royce’s prototype autonomous cargo ship can be tailored to specific routes and adapt to regional emission standards. Image courtesy of Rolls-Royce

There is also the impact autonomous shipping could have on jobs. Despite the shortage in qualified workers, it still takes more than 1.5 million people to operate the more than 90,000 merchant ships worldwide. Right now, a 10,000-ton container ship can sail with a crew of 14 or 15 seafarers; a ship 10 times the size can operate with 19 or 20 seafarers, according to the International Maritime Organization.

Currently, the IMO, which is a branch of the United Nations, forbids ship operations without crews. But there’s been some progress with the regulators who oversee the transport on the world’s oceans. Early this summer, the IMO’s Safety Committee agreed to put autonomous ships on the docket to develop an international legal framework.

Industry experts are optimistic. “Together, we can put some pressure on the organizations to change the regulations,” says Jouni Lehtinen, R&D director for cargo handling at Cargotec subsidiary MacGregor. “Many people don’t see the benefits still, so we can bring the reasoning forward and set milestones to show that this isn’t science fiction.”

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