In spring, a little more than 400 years after the original Mayflower set sail across the Atlantic Ocean with roughly thirty crew members and one hundred pilgrims, the historic ship’s successor launched westward from Plymouth, England. This modern voyage involved fewer passengers. Zero, in fact.

When the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, propelled primarily by renewable sources, reached the shore of North America roughly six weeks after setting off, it became the first fully autonomous commercial vessel to complete a transatlantic crossing. “If anything, the Mayflower shows there is still space for exploration,” says Brett Phaneuf, whose marine research nonprofit, ProMare, managed the initiative, with support from IBM. Instead of a weathered captain, it was a complex system of sensors, cameras, and artificial-intelligence commands that navigated the 50-foot-long trimaran. And where crew members might have slept, eaten, and used the facilities, a cargo bay housed 1,500 pounds of scientific gear. The venture represents a full reimagining of how a ship functions, propels itself through the water, and stores freight.

“Studies show that human error is responsible for around 70 percent of maritime accidents.”

Across the world, the autonomous revolution has taken to the high seas, quietly surpassing better-known efforts on land. Along the Gulf Coast, remote-controlled tugboats are pushing oil barges. In Norway, the world’s first fully electric self-propelled container ship will soon be transporting fertilizer through the fjords with only a skeleton crew (and eventually none at all). A Japanese freight company recently sent a 313-foot uncrewed vessel through 236 miles of crowded coastal waters. The Mikage even docked itself, with the aid of drones, at its final destination. Digitization is revolutionizing maritime operations, creating new opportunities for both transoceanic and domestic shipping that could reduce human risk, environmental harm, and logistical inefficiencies. Perhaps even more significant, experts say, these developments are prompting companies and governments to rethink how they transport goods and deliver services. “We’re changing how we interact with and benefit from our waterways,” says Moran David, chief commercial officer of Boston-based Sea Machines, which is building autonomous command-and-control technology as well as long-range computer-vision programs.

As in many other areas of society, the last few years have hit fast-forward on advancements in maritime enterprise. Market-research firm Thetius forecasts that the global maritime digital-technology industry will be worth $345 billion by the end of the decade. Demand for innovation is largely a response to supply-chain vulnerabilities and labor shortages due to the pandemic, war in Europe, and recent climate-related disasters. During lockdowns, crews have  sometimes been stuck at sea for up to a year, with ports unable to process freight when workers became ill. Meanwhile, the pool of qualified seafarers has been shrinking rapidly. The solutions to each of these issues are multifaceted, but relying more on water transportation and automation will be key to building supply-chain resiliency and efficiency.

“Experts say it will also open a new market, as freight haulers migrate from land to water.”

Of course, with new technology comes new risks—and new regulations. “Autonomous shipping is not about technology anymore; it’s a matter of willingness,” says Phaneuf. Just as self-driving cars have faced many setbacks, self-driving seaborne craft are likely to encounter their own snags. For instance, how do you resolve gaps in satellite connectivity in the middle of the ocean? Who is liable in the event of an accident? Will piracy migrate from attacks on the open seas to hacking? The biggest threat is the water itself. Unlike roadways, which are highly structured grids, the ocean is inherently corrosive and always changing in unpredictable ways. For autonomous shipping to expand from limited applications to ubiquity will require significant political and commercial investment.

Experts say the immediate future of shipping innovation will likely follow a trajectory similar to that of vehicles. First, there will be driver-assisted applications. Then remote-controlled coastal uses, followed by remote-controlled ocean crossings, and, eventually, fully autonomous ocean crossings. “It’s going to be a very, very slow adoption pathway,” says Ken Bloom, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Infrastructure Construction and Services practice. “We’ll start by supplying oil rigs with bananas and picking up their dirty laundry. Slowly, the use cases will broaden and get riskier and more complex. Right now, we’re at the end of the beginning.”

Like cars and airplanes, most ships already have some form of autopilot that can be relied upon when it’s smooth sailing. Instead of activating the brakes, these systems serve as alerts. And for the near term, even outfits with the capability to be fully autonomous will mostly continue relying on skeleton crews. Bloom predicts the technology will first be deployed in workboats and smaller vessels before spreading to large merchant ships, which are more complex to maneuver.

So what will these robot ships of the future look like? They will be steered by onboard weather stations that collect real-time meteorological data, sensors that observe the movement of waves, radar that scans the horizon, and collision-avoidance systems that rely on algorithms based on the International Maritime Organization’s guidelines for preventing crashes. All this information will help Captain AI make decisions, be it how to navigate a hurricane or avoid hitting a kayaker. Should any of these onboard systems fail, the craft can be remotely controlled or an onboard officer can hit the manual-override button.

The maritime industry is among the most dangerous of all industries, with seafarer death rates more than 20 times higher than those of onshore workers. Sailors are often required to undertake high-risk tasks, from oil-spill cleanup to search-and-rescue operations to underwater hull inspections. AI can take over such perilous jobs, and even make the mundane ones safer. Studies show that human error is responsible for around 70 percent of maritime accidents. “Automation doesn’t get tired, or drunk, or emotional,” says Pia Meling, vice president of sales and marketing at Massterly, a full-service autonomous-shipping venture. In this new construct, humans will essentially back up computers.

While captains do spend some time scanning the horizon from the bridge, much of their time is spent doing office work and analyzing weather, fuel, and other reports to make real-time decisions. With a hybrid approach, captains will oversee operations from shore, allowing them to delegate certain tasks and manage multiple vessels at one time. That has the added benefit of allowing for more inclusivity in the labor force. Parents or those with physical disabilities would no longer be excluded from doing the job. At the same time, the small crew that is onboard will be able to focus on a new variety of tasks. “Autonomous solutions are a tool for the mariner,” says David at Sea Machines. “It’s offering a reprieve from doing the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks and allowing the mariner to focus on more important tasks that can only be done by humans.”

The seafarer’s life is not an easy one, and the industry is facing a recruitment crisis. In Japan, for instance, roughly 40 percent of the nation’s domestic-tanker workforce is 55 years or older, according to a recent survey. As one generation retires, the next has not stepped up to replace it. Developing the skills needed to safely navigate the open waters can take decades. Automation allows engineers to encode the wisdom and expertise of veterans, while creating the technological jobs that appeal to younger generations. Shipping academies are already reimagining their training programs for an automated future.

Even as this changing of the guard takes place, recent environmental initiatives have compelled the industry to reduce emissions. Huge container ships are testing alternative fuel types which require significant financial investment in new systems and worker training. The hybrid-crew model allows companies to save money on labor and better use highly specialized workers, such as engineers, by keeping them docked on land. And because autonomous ships can be redesigned with more space for cargo instead of humans, “they’re intrinsically green things,” Phaneuf says. “Saving 10 percent [of emissions] from container ships is like erasing cities from earth.”

Robo-shipping is a matter of optimization. In order to control costs, emissions, and logistics, more and more cargo owners are opting to become shipowners. Eventually that will lead to economies of scale at fleet and company levels. Experts say it will also open a new market, as freight haulers migrate from land to water.

Traditionally, domestic transportation has been dominated by trucking, which is cheaper but also has drawbacks, such as traffic, crumbling road infrastructure, and a skill shortage. In Norway, it’s not only the fertilizer company that’s moving its operations to the water: soon the country’s largest grocer will begin delivering 16 electric supply trucks from a warehouse on one side of Oslo’s main fjord to a distribution site on the other. “If we design different vessels with more cargo room and reduced operating costs, then all of a sudden those vessels become competitive to trucks,” Meling says. Nearby, in the Netherlands, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is collaborating with local teams to produce a fleet of autonomous vessels that will be outfitted for household waste removal, logistics movement, and ferry operations.

These are all limited domestic case studies, however. It remains to be seen how the industry will approach oversight globally. The rules of the seas, some of which were written back in the 1800s, are based on having humans at the helm. While the International Maritime Organization is working on its guidelines, different countries and regulatory bodies are likely to issue their own conflicting regulations. One country might allow certain technologies and ban others; another might do the opposite. These potential conflicts are causing some companies to be wary of making significant investments. In some ways, the situation is similar to the quagmire that has kept self-driving cars in permanent beta mode.

Most, if not all, of the experts working to bring autonomous shipping to fruition agree that the greatest impediments are no longer technological; they’re human. But the unanswered questions and unforeseeable obstacles pale in comparison to the possibilities. “We’re seeing a revolution in how humans interact with our waterways that we haven’t seen since we started to cross oceans,” David says. “Autonomy is not a revolution of the future; it’s here.”


Carmakers like Tesla brought semi-autonomous electric vehicles to the mainstream, and now a local company wants to do the same for recreational boating.

Grapevine-based Alloy wants to build an electric boat that’s capable of avoiding other boats, docking and even driving itself from place to place under ideal conditions. The company has developed a software prototype and hopes to bring a product to the market in 2024.

“The center for us is smarter, safer boats,” said CEO Brandon Cotter, an entrepreneur who worked on 11 other startups before co-founding Alloy.

Cotter grew up boating, and the idea for Alloy came to him as he and his significant other sat in the back of a boat. They’d been reading about the move toward electric and autonomous cars, and Cotter realized it was only a matter of time before someone capitalized on the same trend in the marine industry.

He founded the company with software engineer Powell Kinney and former MasterCraft Boats CEO John Dorton. The founders assembled a 10-person team that spans the world, from Dallas to Lille, France.

Alloy is currently wrapping up a $2.5 million fundraising round from Texas-based angel investors. The company says it aims to raise $10 million this year.

Like Tesla, Alloy places software at the center of its design process, aiming to reimagine the experience of driving a boat. The company started off by building a software prototype, which a demo video shows driving a boat while navigating around another craft.

“That boat is drivable from an iPad,” Cotter said.

The final product’s level of autonomy will vary based on water conditions. On a clear day with few other boats on the water, the boat will be able to drive itself from place to place. On a windy day with more obstacles, the software may be limited to keeping the driver aware of what’s happening around the boat.

The software is running on a Nautique craft right now, but Cotter hopes Alloy can build its own prototype boat by the end of the year. The startup is partnering with another company to build the electric engine and battery packs.

The biggest challenge for electric boats is energy storage, said John-Michael Donahue, vice president for North American public affairs at the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Batteries are much less energy dense than gasoline, and pushing a boat through water takes more power than propelling a car down the road.

Compared with cars, “it’s going to be a little more challenging, take a little longer for the entire recreational boat fleet to transition to electrification,” Donahue said.

Alloy’s boats will be as lightweight as possible to make them more energy efficient, Cotter said. They’ll also be aimed at people who take their boats out during the day and bring them back to the dock at night to charge.

Although there’s no official count, electric vessels probably make up less than 1% of the 12 million boats registered in the U.S., Donahue said.

But selling even 10,000 to 20,000 boats would introduce a lot of people to electric boating, Cotter said.

“Our mission is to get a million new people on the water safely over the next 10 years,” he said.

Alloy has retrofitted a Nautique vessel with self-driving technology that allows it to be...
Alloy has retrofitted a Nautique vessel with self-driving technology that allows it to be controlled remotely with Alloy’s software.(Mike Reyher)


The U.S. Navy has added autonomous navigation capability to another vessel, the future Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport USNS Apalachicola (EPF 13) for Military Sealift Command. The service has tested out autonomy retrofit systems and purpose-built autonomous prototypes, but this will be the first true numbered hull in the U.S. Navy with built-in vessel autonomy.

“EPF 13 will be the first fully operational U.S. naval ship to possess autonomous capability, including the ability to operate autonomously in a commercial vessel traffic lane,” said Tim Roberts, Strategic and Theater Sealift program manager, Program Executive Office (PEO) Ships. “This testing is a game changer and highlights that there is potential to expand unmanned concepts into existing fleet assets.”

The EPFs provide the Navy with a militarized ro/pax ferry for medium-range operations, like inter-island transport, special operations, expeditionary medical care or humanitarian relief. A helicopter flight deck, seating for 300 troops, and a 100-ton loading ramp round out the feature set. The class has a top speed of more than 40 knots in calm waters.

Apalachicola was modified for autonomous operation under a supplemental $44 million contract awarded last year to her builder, Austal USA. The upgrades include more automation for the vessel’s mechanical systems to reduce personnel requirements, as well as mechanical reliability improvements. Both are key for uncrewed operations.

The Apalachicola is undergoing a series of autonomy trials, and the tests will increase in difficulty, according to PEO Ships. Next up will be nighttime navigation and operations in various weather and sea state conditions; if these go well, the testing will move up to include collision avoidance and COLREGS compliance.

Adding an autonomous capability to the Spearhead class could open up new options for the Navy. According to Austal, the potential mission sets could include purpose-built adaptations of the EPF platform for uncrewed logistics, mine warfare, or auxiliary magazine (uncrewed missile carrier and launch platform). As optionally-crewed vessels, they would be operated by MSC civil service mariners in the ordinary course of business, but could disembark their crews and operate autonomously for hazardous missions.



Aferry described as the world’s fastest electric passenger vessel is being trialled in Sweden.


As shipping as a whole attempts to decarbonize, could this be an indicator of the industry’s future?

The fastest electric ship
In 2023, a new electric ferry called the Candela P-12 will start running a trial service from the Swedish capital, Stockholm, to the island suburb of Ekerö.

Swedish electric boat maker Candela, which has developed the ferry, says it uses 80% less energy than conventional ships and removes 100% of local emissions.

With an average speed of 20-30 knots, the P-12 is the “fastest electric ship to date”, Candela says, and is apparently faster for commuters than subway trains, buses and cars driving in rush hour.

The ferry flies above the water, reports Euronews, using three carbon fibre wings that extend out of the hull.

It has a capacity of 30 passengers and runs on a battery that can be charged in an hour from empty, reports Bloomberg.

If the nine-month trial is successful, Candela hopes its electric ferries could replace Stockholm’s current fleet of 70 diesel vessels.

Sweden’s new ferry is described as the world’s fastest electric passenger vessel. Such decarbonization technologies are essential for making the industry emission free. Image: Candela

Are there benefits for wider shipping?
Electric boats that run on batteries are an option for short sea journeys in smaller vessels like passenger ferries. But longer routes with bigger boats – like those typically needed for cargo shipping – are different.

Electrification is “really not an option for deep-sea vessels, due to the size of batteries that would be required,” says Johannah Christensen of the Global Maritime Forum in an interview with the World Economic Forum.

In fact, international shipping is one of the toughest – and biggest – sectors to decarbonize. Around 11 billion tonnes of goods a year are transported by ship, between at least 150 countries. Shipping transports around 80% of world trade.

Why does shipping need to cut emissions?
Shipping accounts for around 3% of global emissions. The world can’t become carbon-neutral without removing these emissions, experts say.

Ships typically run on heavy fuel oil – a waste product from crude oil refining that is low-quality and high-carbon.

Air pollution from shipping is thought to cause around 60,000 premature deaths a year, especially around coastal and port areas.

How is shipping decarbonization progressing?
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) – the United Nations body that regulates shipping – pledged in 2018 to halve the shipping sector’s emissions by 2050. This goal will be reviewed in 2023.

More than 200 maritime industry leaders are now calling for shipping to be carbon-free by 2050, through the Call to Action for Shipping Decarbonization. This is a partnership between the Global Maritime Forum – an international organization focused on the future sustainability of seaborne trade – the World Economic Forum and Friends of Ocean Action – an informal group of ocean leaders co-hosted by the Forum and environmental research organization, the World Resources Institute.

The Forum is also a partner in the First Movers Coalition – an initiative to help decarbonize “hard to abate” industrial sectors, including shipping, aviation and trucking. The Coalition was set up in partnership with US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and has just expanded its membership to more than 50 companies and nine countries representing more than 40% of global output.

Emissions from shipping are growing as the industry expands. Decarbonization is key to control the industry’s impact on climate change. Image: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

What decarbonization solutions are there for shipping?
The Call to Action for Shipping Decarbonization says its signatories have committed to more than 400 climate actions and pledges related to shipping decarbonization.

The shipping industry is trialling alternative fuels, like biogas – a renewable fuel typically derived from organic waste. Other fuels that can be produced with no or low-carbon emissions, like ammonia and methanol, are also being tested.

For example, Danish ship owner and operator Maersk is developing eight large ocean-going container vessels that can be run on carbon-neutral methanol.

Wind, sun and other forms of renewable energy can be harnessed on ships to help propel them. Swedish shipbuilder Wallenius Marine and its partners are developing the “Oceanbird,” a cargo ship powered by wind that can carry 7,000 cars.

Hybrid systems that combine batteries and other fuels are also being developed. Precious Shipping, a ship owner and operator in Thailand, is working on developing a hybrid battery system that also uses wind and solar energy.

Hybrid systems that combine batteries and other fuels are also being developed that will help in decarbonization of the shipping industry. Image: Britanny Ferries

In France, Brittany Ferries is launching a new ferry that it says will be the world’s biggest hybrid ship.

Called the Saint-Malo, it has a 1,400-passenger capacity and is the first of two new hybrid ferries that will run between England and France from 2025.

The ferries can run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), battery power or a combination of the two. LNG is a fossil fuel, but is considered cleaner and safer than oil-based fuels.

Stena RoRo, the Swedish company building the ferries, says hybrid vessels are a stepping stone to future technology developments, including “green fuels, fuel cells, bigger batteries, and solar or wind supported propulsion”.
Source: World Economic Forum


Turkish shipping company Güngen Denizcilik ve Ticaret (Güngen), an operator of six Suezmax crude oil tankers, has agreed a deal to implement the Vessel Insight data infrastructure from Kongsberg on all of its vessels.

Güngen’s immediate goal is to benchmark the ships to identify potential areas for fuel savings and reduced emissions.

This will involve standardisation of digital processes and collection of all available data from the ships’ assets. Those inputs will then be analysed and made available for connection to software applications within Kongsberg’s Kognifai Marketplace.

“The multitude of sensors onboard our ships produce a massive amount of valuable data,” said Selim Güngen, COO at Güngen.

“So far, despite enjoying the best satellite communication contracts which the market has to offer, we have only really been able to access this data by logging into our ships. This relatively slow and inefficient process has obstructed our predictive maintenance and data analysis endeavours.”

“We therefore reached out to Kongsberg, who also made our ships’ automation systems, to find a solution which will deliver an effortless data stream, accessible from anywhere and at any time from a user-friendly interface. We very much look forward to working with Kongsberg Digital to set yet another milestone in our digitalisation process.”



Classification society Korean Register (KR) has agreed to collaborate with Samsung Heavy Industries (SHI) and KLCSM on autonomous navigation systems for ships.

The three parties signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to conduct joint research on the application of autonomous navigation systems for mid-sized to large-sized vessels.

As part of the agreement, KLCSM’s fleet of operating ships will be equipped with SHI’s autonomous navigation system, called Samsung Autonomous Ship (SAS), for risk assessments.

What should market participants prioritise when aiming to develop a clear view of ESG risks and opportunities? Andrea Blackman, global head of Moody’s ESG Solutions, discusses how attitudes and expectations are changing, and the role ‘comprehensive coverage’ must play in greening the global economy.

As urgency around the climate crisis heightens, the world is seeing a greater call for accountability and transparency. Market and investor pressure is mounting on the private sector to transition to a low-carbon economy, making corporate ESG disclosures a critical piece of the puzzle.

Vague claims around sustainability will not pass muster with investors and regulators. Rather, they are calling for precise data around companies’ ESG impacts, be that in the form of understanding nature-related risk, biodiversity loss, human rights considerations or other ESG factors.

The system will also support the development and certification of cybersecurity systems, as well as provide a review of the conformity of different agreements and standards for future approval of ship registries.

Additionally, KR, SHI and KLCSM agreed to work together to commercialise autonomous navigation systems through the Marine Equipment Directive (MED) certification of SHI’s Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) modules.

KR Plan Approval Center head Yeon Kyujin said: “I am quite confident that our strong collaboration will accelerate the commercialisation of autonomous ship equipment and technology, and enhance the quality and competitiveness of the equipment by establishing an actual ship-based autonomous operating system.”

KLCSM Corporation Managing Department director Kwon O-gil said: “With this latest joint cooperation, more autonomous navigation systems will be successfully applied to ships, which will further increase the efficiency of ship management.

“We also expect to improve vessel safety and improve the environment of ship operations amid a current shortage of sailors.”

What should market participants prioritise when aiming to develop a clear view of ESG risks and opportunities? Andrea Blackman, global head of Moody’s ESG Solutions, discusses how attitudes and expectations are changing, and the role ‘comprehensive coverage’ must play in greening the global economy.

As urgency around the climate crisis heightens, the world is seeing a greater call for accountability and transparency. Market and investor pressure is mounting on the private sector to transition to a low-carbon economy, making corporate ESG disclosures a critical piece of the puzzle.

Vague claims around sustainability will not pass muster with investors and regulators. Rather, they are calling for precise data around companies’ ESG impacts, be that in the form of understanding nature-related risk, biodiversity loss, human rights considerations or other ESG factors.

Founded in 1960, KR offers verification and certification services for ships and other maritime structures. It has been a member of the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) since 1988.

Recently, KR granted approval in principle (AIP) for a methanol dual-fuel very large crude oil carrier (VLCC).


The possibility now exists for ships to navigate the globe with no one at the helm. This capability has been demonstrated in the United States, Europe and Japan by autonomous workboats, survey vessels, and coastwise voyages by autonomous cargo vessels and ferries with the development of larger vessels capable of making trans-oceanic voyages coming soon. Despite this new reality, aside from a patchwork of voluntary best practices, there are no international standards for the safe design, operation or maintenance of autonomous vessels.

Recognizing this gap, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has recently completed a so-called Regulatory Scoping Exercise (RSE) to begin the process of creating a framework for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (known as MASS) to enable their safe operation within existing IMO instruments, the most significant being the Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).


( The landscape of maritime commerce is rapidly shifting as advances in digital technology drive industry towards increased automation. Globally, in Norway and Finland, vessels like the Yara Birkeland and Finnferries’ Falco, respectively, have demonstrated through the future of research and development in this space.

Additionally, we looked at the risks and challenges that must be overcome to enable safe and secure deployment of autonomous technology in the maritime domain. With new this technology comes risks that challenge the norms of safety and operational requirements.
Accordingly, the US Coast Guard must understand these emerging technologies and their limitations, in order to provide a clear path towards sensible, prudent regulation in alignment with our global partners. Further, Captains of the Port must continue to engage with maritime stakeholders to manage new autonomous vessel projects, research, and testing while minimizing risks to local waterways.

Globally, the International Maritime Organization continues its efforts, working with maritime nations to establish governance of autonomous vessels and chart the path forward for modifications to international conventions. In parallel, domestic efforts are ongoing as the U.S. Coast Guard is currently evaluating amendments to regulations and policy needed to keep pace with the forthcoming changes brought by autonomous shipping. Concurrently, industry continues to innovate and develop new and exciting systems that highlight gaps in current international and domestic requirements. We will work through these challenges together to ensure alignment in our mutual goals for a continued safe, prosperous, and technologically advanced maritime sector.

As we move forward, autonomous technology provides a tremendous opportunity for our maritime workforce and creates a demand signal for young leaders who understand the technology and can help shape the future operating environment. We are excited to see
contributions from the maritime academies who are integrating autonomous technology into their curriculums to train the next generation of mariners. There are also articles from some of the USCG junior officers who recently earned post graduate degrees and others who are pursuing excellence in the field.

Autonomous technology brings new challenges, pushing the bounds of international and domestic laws, regulations, and standards. In many cases, these guiding documents will require modifications to account for the changing risk profile these vessels and systems pose. Internationally, work on this front continues through the International Maritime Organization. Domestically, the US Coast Guard continues to address policy and regulatory
gaps while working closely with Captains of the Port and Officers in Charge, Marine Inspection to ensure a consistent and standardized approach to these new vessel projects is employed.

As this technology progresses, mariners’ roles are changing. In the future, these positions will likely be increasingly technical and work in concert with automated systems in the course of vessel navigation, engineering, and maintenance. Solutions to the challenges presented by autonomous vessels are not simple. They will require close cooperation between the technology industry, vessel operators, and regulators.

Read more on the subject, in this edition of Proceedings, Spring 2022 edition of the US Coast Guard Journal of Safety & Security at Sea, highlighting the innovative developments in autonomous vessel technology and the challenges faced by industry and regulators in the drive towards greater automation in the maritime landscape:


Source: USCG

Yara and tech company Kongsberg have created the ship YARA Birkeland which is all set to become the world’s first crewless cargo ship with zero carbon footprint. Finally, the container shipping industry has taken the next giant leap- viz the introduction of autonomous cargo ships. Although the concept of a self-steering cargo ship might sound like a scene from a sci-fi movie, autonomous cargo vessels are no longer a distant vision. Today, we will provide you with a very interesting report on the first zero-emission and autonomous cargo vessel and its long-term implications for the container shipping industry.

A brief introduction to autonomous vessels for container shipping industry

Over the years, the container shipping industry has been pioneering new technologies to ensure a quick transition to green shipping. Any ship that can navigate without human intervention and with the help of artificial intelligence programmes is called an autonomous ship. These ships are all set to revolutionize the ocean freight sector by making sea freight shipping more profitable and agile.

Presently, autonomous vessels are divided into 4 major types:

  • Ships with multiple automated processes that still require the presence of humans on board
  • Remotely controlled ships that don’t require the presence of the full crew
  • Remotely controlled ships that can operate without a crew
  • Fully self-steering ships with an operating system capable of making decisions

There are several advantages to autonomous ships. Firstly, the primary benefit of these ships is the near elimination of all human errors. Additionally, the presence of fewer crew members will imply less onboard maintenance while shipping. Therefore, autonomous ships will greatly reduce the expenses of the container shipping sector. Most importantly, these ships will use sustainable fuels like hydrogen or even electricity. This in turn will reduce the environmental impact of the container shipping industry.

Yara Birkeland- the world’s first autonomous cargo ship

Yara Birkeland is the world’s first autonomous zero-emission cargo ship that runs on electricity. Kongsberg is the company that is providing all the key technologies such as sensors, batteries, propulsion control systems, etc. required for the seamless functioning of the battery-powered ship. The ship with a length of 80 m and weighing around 3,200 tonnes includes computers and sensors that allow for sailing without a crew via remote control. Most importantly, this self-steering ship is also environmentally sustainable as it produces zero-emission. It has a cargo capacity of 120 TEU and a battery capacity of 6.8 MWh. Commercial operation of this vessel will commence shortly.

How this ship will transform the container shipping industry

Last November, the Yara Birkeland embarked on its maiden voyage from Horten to Oslo. Once fully operational, this ship will replace truck haulage by 40,000 truck trips a year between Porsgrunn and Brevik. This will allow it to reduce the emission of 1,000 tonnes of CO2. The sensors of this vessel comprise of radar, infrared cams, and automotive integrated solution cameras. Together they provide the vessel with the ability to detect any obstacles in its way and bypass them. This is a great technology that can forever change the workings of cargo ships.

The Yara Birkeland also comes with automatic mooring arms that permit unmanned mooring and docking at the ports. To quote Jostein Braaten, the project leader of Yara Birkeland, “Yara is constantly seeking opportunities to improve not only the business but also safety and our environmental footprint. By introducing Yara Birkeland, Yara wants to show a dedication to improving the environmental impact from this transport of goods.”

The ship uses cloud technologies to offer the on-shore remote operation office with all the data related to voyage and operation. Moreover, this ship only requires remote takeover in the unlikely event of an error requiring human assistance. The Yara Birkeland is capable of loading and offloading the freight, navigating, and recharging its batteries without any human intervention.

The advantages of crewless operations

One of the major factors that allow Yara Birkeland to leave a mark on the industry is the total autonomy of the ship. The fact that it doesn’t require a single person on board comes with several advantages like lower staffing expenses and more space for cargo. Most importantly, crewless shipping improves the safety of shipping operations since most accidents in the container shipping industry occur due to human error.

Although this technology is still in its initial phase, it will keep playing a significant role in the future of the maritime sector. It will also enhance the competitiveness of shipping for short-distance routes. In the future, autonomous ships will help to deal with the problems of traffic jams and the problem of driver shortages. As Mr Braaten explains, “We see that autonomy in maritime has really picked up the pace after the news of Yara Birkeland was released. It is no longer a question of “if” autonomy is coming, it is a matter of “when”. Autonomy is an enabler and a potential catalyst for the green shift in maritime. We are delighted to be leading this shift and see that by realizing this concept – others are following.”