Self-driving autonomous cars have been a hot topic of discussion for the past couple of years. Some car companies are making significant progress in this area, but this isn’t the only application of driverless vehicles. The maritime industry has made some substantial strides in developing autonomous ships.
The age of autonomous shipping may be nearer than you’d think. While there may not be any market-ready crewless ships roaming the seas right now, there are some promising developments on the horizon. Here’s a deeper dive into what the future of self-steering ships is starting to look like.
Advantages of Autonomous Shipping
To understand where the industry may go in this regard, you need to know how it can benefit. Just like driverless cars, autonomous ships present several advantages over ones that rely on human control. Perhaps the most crucial of these is increased safety.
When self-driving vehicles work correctly, they’re far safer than their traditional counterparts. Human errors can account for more than 75% of marine accidents because people tend to get distracted. Artificial intelligence (AI) doesn’t get distracted and can’t become impaired through substances like alcohol like humans can, making this technology safer.
Not needing a full crew also saves shipping companies money. Autonomous ships can even address environmental concerns since they can measure and regulate their energy and fuel usage. With these advantages in mind, here are a few insights into where this field may be going.
As autonomous ships are becoming more of a reality, cybersecurity grows more prevalent. Many conversations about driverless vehicle safety focus on steering, but cybersecurity is just as significant a concern. For crewless ships to be an entirely safe option, they’ll need robust cybersecurity measures.
In February of 2019, a cyberattack on a container ship heading to New York disabled the vessel’s network. If malware can affect a crewed ship so severely, the effects on an autonomous one could be devastating. A breached system on a crewless vessel could potentially redirect it, endangering nearby ships, ports, and ecosystems.
These concerns will lead to an emphasis on cybersecurity in autonomous ships. Manufacturers will establish top-of-the-line security systems in the ships’ AI to ensure their safety. Any autonomous vessels that find much market success will be those with robust cybersecurity.
Another prevalent trend in autonomous ships is a growing focus on sustainability. This trend isn’t unique to crewless vessels, which is part of the reason why it will continue to grow. As more companies and investors look for environmental initiatives, the eco-friendly advantages of self-steering ships will be a bigger selling point.
Autonomous ships offer environmental benefits even with traditional propulsion systems. An AI-controlled vessel can sail more efficiently since the “captain” has direct access to data like fuel consumption. Since experts predict the marine diesel engine market to grow to $7 billion by 2024, this is a considerable advantage.
Companies that don’t want to abandon diesel engines can still reduce their emissions through autonomous ships. With increasing environmental pressure, advantages like this will drive the adoption of these technologies. As a result, the manufacturers of crewless vessels will likely focus on these concerns.
Steering isn’t the only application of autonomy in seagoing vessels. Last year, cruise company Lindblad Expeditions finished a year-long trial period of a self-cleaning ship. Instead of a traditional cleaning system, the vessel uses a chemical coating that starts killing germs after exposure to light.
Sanitation is a leading concern on cruise ships, as the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted. Traditional cleaning services may not be adequate and may put sanitation crews at risk of contracting disease. The more people involved in maintaining the vessel, the more likely contagions are to spread throughout it.
Self-cleaning solutions like this may speed up the implementation of autonomous ships as a whole. Without needing staff for sanitation, there’s one less task that requires a crew onboard the vessel. Taking care of issues like this will help truly crewless ships become a reality.
Autonomous Ships in Defense
Most discussions about crewless vessels revolve around the commercial maritime industry. This isn’t the only area of shipping that will benefit from autonomous ships, though. As these technologies become more prevalent, they’ll appear in defense applications as well.
The U.S. Navy has already begun developing a fleet of autonomous vessels. Within five years, they hope to build 10 Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs) to scout areas ahead of the rest of the fleet. While these LUSVs can carry an optional crew, the Navy is also developing No Mariners Required Ships (NOMARS), which are entirely uncrewed.
Military technologies tend to make their way into civilian industries after some time. So as the Navy researches and builds these vessels, this could lead to improved commercial ones as well. If nothing else, the military interest in autonomous ships serves as an example of how widespread the technology may be.
Staggered Transitions Into Automation
The transition into autonomous ships won’t happen all at once. Instead, it will likely go through different phases, slowly building up to 100% crewless vessels. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has outlined four degrees of autonomy that the industry will likely exhibit.
The first is ships that have some automated processes, followed by remotely controlled vessels with an onboard crew. Crewless remotely controlled ships make up the third degree, with the fourth being full autonomy. Given technological and functional complications, the transition between levels three and four could take a while.
The third degree of automation is already on display throughout the world. Not all manufacturers have moved past the first degree, though. Since most ships currently sailing still only exhibit the first degree, the transition into full automation will be a slow one.
Is Automation the Future of Shipping?
Autonomous vessels present significant potential for the shipping industry. Given how current trends are playing out, autonomy will likely become standard in the future. That said, it could still be several years before that shift takes place.
Full automation won’t be a thing of science fiction for long, even if it may be a few years before we see it. If these trends continue growing, autonomous ships may be here before you know it.
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