Autonomous Cargo Ships: Will Manned Vessels Soon Be a Thing of the Past?

2022 has been a year of firsts for autonomous cargo ships. In February, the Yara Birkeland, a fully electric and autonomous cargo ship, successfully completed its maiden voyage in Norway. In May, an autonomous freighter named the Suzaku traveled 491 miles around Tokyo Bay without human intervention, performing more than 100 collision avoidance maneuvers. In June, the Prism Courage became the first autonomous vessel to complete a transoceanic voyage of more than 6,210 miles.

Powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the technology behind autonomous navigation has advanced significantly in recent years. It will only advance further with successes like the ones seen so far in 2022. But does this mean manned vessels are a thing of the past? Maybe, but there is but a slight possibility that this would happen any time soon.

Much like the motor vehicle industry has been slow to transition to fully autonomous cars and trucks, transitioning to autonomous cargo ships is a time-intensive and extremely costly process. Although the savings from not housing large crews on vessels would be considerable, the upfront cost of retrofitting vessels with the cameras and specialized navigation equipment needed for autonomous voyages would also be substantial. Remote operation centers would need to be constructed and manned as well.

AI-Based, Crewless Navigation Systems

Orca AI, the company behind the Suzaku’s trip around Tokyo Bay, created a navigation system that would act as a “human guardian” by detecting, classifying, and acting on data from 18 onboard cameras in real-time. During the vessel’s 40-hour voyage, it required no human intervention 99% of the time. The software that made the voyage successful utilized algorithms built on data that was collected from the freighter a year earlier, specifically related to identifying targets in Tokyo Bay’s complex and congested environment.

Yara, the company that produced the zero-emission Yara Birkeland, retrofitted the vessel with radar, infrared cameras, sensors, and computers to allow for its autonomous or remote-control operation. The vessel was also built with an electrical propulsion and battery system with a capacity of nearly 7MWh of energy, making it the first fully electric cargo vessel in the world.

Avikus and HD Hyundai developed the autonomous navigation technology used by the Prism Courage to navigate 6,200 miles of ocean from the Gulf of Mexico through the Panama Canal and into a port in the South Chungcheong Province in Korea. During the 33-day voyage, the AI-based HiNAS 2.0 navigation system autonomously maintained the vessel’s route while avoiding nearby vessels and making necessary course corrections.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Autonomous Cargo Vessels

As with any new endeavor, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to autonomous cargo vessels.

Some of the potential advantages of autonomous cargo vessels include:

  • Less of a risk to crews. If cargo vessels were truly crewless or could operate with very limited crews, fewer seamen would be subject to harm at sea. Working on a cargo ship can be dangerous for many reasons, like exposure to severe weather, equipment malfunction, physical exertion, accidents, and piracy. With fewer seamen on cargo vessels, there would be fewer accidents, injuries, and deaths.
  • More space for cargo. A vessel without a sizeable crew would not require the living quarters and other spaces humans need. This would mean that there would be more space on vessels for cargo, improving the efficiency of maritime shipping for autonomous ships.
  • Less expense on manning vessels. The companies that operate autonomous cargo vessels would see savings on wages as well as on their food, medical care, and other necessities for crews.

There are also prospective disadvantages to consider:

  • The risk of cyberattacks. Autonomous cargo vessels would be at risk of being taken over and controlled by hackers, making cybersecurity a top priority as more unmanned ships take to the water.
  • Less protection against piracy. For autonomous vessels on longer voyages in potentially hazardous waters, piracy could be a risk. However, as unmanned vessels, fewer lives would be in danger or lost to piracy.
  • High upfront cost. The cost of building new autonomous vessels or retrofitting old cargo ships with autonomous navigation systems could be considerable, which may lead to some companies dragging their feet in implementing such initiatives.

If you work in the maritime industry, it is highly unlikely that your job will be taken over by a computer or robot—at least not for some time. In the meantime, we’ll continue following developments in autonomous cargo ships and other vessels, and we’ll keep fighting for the rights of seamen and families who have suffered the consequences of offshore injuries, maritime accidents, and more.

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