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A cargo tanker off the coast of Norway completed a 13-hour journey last year — but it wasn’t a regular ship. 

The voyage was a test of an autonomous ship under AUTOSHIP, an EU-funded program to develop new technologies for navigating large vessels.

The consortium brought together entities from academia and industry, including Kongsberg Maritime, the Norwegian giant that has been conducting deep research and development (R&D) on autonomous shipping.

The trip marked a pivotal advancement in developing autonomous technology for shipping, which still faces many hurdles before it is ready for primetime.

Markus Laurinen, growth and solutions director at Kongsberg Maritime, said that autonomous shipping as well as remote operating centers are possible, but there are external factors at play that will influence the acceptance of the tech, from gaining customer trust to securing regulatory clearance.

“We are doing this step wise. We have a road map where we are role by role moving the functions to the remote operating center,” Laurinen told CNBC.

“This enables all the stakeholders involved to also learn and adapt in this big change that is happening. This is concerning a big amount of stakeholders, the freight owners, the ship owners, operators, the regulatory bodies and even the technological development bodies.”

Convincing national and global maritime regulators to get on board is the biggest obstacle for autonomous or remote shipping, said Ville Vihervaara, Kongsberg Maritime’s VP of remote and autonomous solutions.

“It really much depends on regulation, how the different countries and maritime regulators, how soon they will allow unmanned or uncrewed vessels at sea.”

Reaching full autonomy

Tests like those carried out by Kongsberg in Norway aim to sway decision makers in the company’s direction. The business is nevertheless not the only player experimenting in this space.

South Korea’s Samsung Heavy Industry (SHI) is also making key advancements in the technology and retrofitted one of its Samsung T-8 vessels with automated tech in 2020.

“We then successfully performed a 10km (kilometer) journey at Geoje Island without any interference from the staff on board,” a SHI spokesperson said.

Much of this is made possible by radar and sensor technology, the company added.

“Our organization is presently implementing our autonomous navigation technology on six large vessels and five small vessels.”

Industry collaboration will be key to getting more such projects up and running. Last year, SHI announced it had signed an agreement with Denmark’s DNV to develop autonomous functions.

Much like self-driving cars, ships can operate under different degrees of autonomy.

The International Maritime Organization outlines four levels of autonomy, with the minimal level one still requiring seafarers on board, while level four implies full autonomy and enables the ship to operate without human intervention.

There are still many kinks to straighten out before a ship reaches level four.

The U.K. Hydrographic Office, a government agency responsible for providing hydrographic data for mariners for navigation, is currently developing standards for how machines will be able to read its graphs, according to Leo McLeman, business development manager at the institution.

“Uniquely for autonomous technology, the hazards are hidden for the mariner by the sea. If you’re navigating an autonomous car, you can see the hazards, same with an aircraft to a certain extent,” McLeman explained. 

One of the biggest challenges for a machine is context. As a ship enters busier waters — usually as it nears land — it will encounter more vessels and infrastructure such as offshore wind farms. 

Traditionally a ship’s captain knows how to navigate these obstacles and who receives priority on a route to avoid collisions. Will a machine be able to do that?

“That’s a question that our R&D team are tackling internally,” McLeman said.


Questions linger over how an autonomous or remotely controlled ship will deal with collisions or other hazardous incidents at sea.

“Learning via mistake in a cargo ship environment can be costly, it can be dangerous,” said J.C. Renshaw, head of supply chain consulting at Savills North America. “In order to get there, I think that there needs to be some element of human intervention that enables the technology to learn without the peril of learning via mistake.” 

Renshaw added that piracy is another consideration. Piracy around the Horn of Africa has reportedly been rising again in recent months, adding to concerns.

On one hand, tasking an autonomous ship to undertake a dangerous route would mean no threat to human life in the event of an attack. On the other hand, freight owners may not have confidence in their precious cargo being carried through risky waters without human oversight. 

“It’s going to take a while to make this pivot. I don’t think it’s going to be something that is an overnight game changer. There are a lot of things that do have to be figured out. Regulatory safety issues, piracy, any of the issues that are always dealt with by these cargo ships need to be cleared,” Renshaw said.

Startups on the outside

The development of autonomous shipping has been fronted by the industry’s large players, like Kongsberg Maritime and Samsung Heavy Industry.

That is likely to continue, according to Kaitlyn Glancy, currently a partner of VC firm Eclipse and formerly a VP at logistics tech firm Flexport.

Tech startups may have a hard time competing with these larger players, which is why there are not as many playing in the shipping field as there are in autonomous driving.

Glancy told CNBC that there is a great need to improve port infrastructure through digitization and automation, which is an area where younger companies working on tech like sensors and AI can prove their worth.

“The biggest opportunities are more so on optimizing domestic infrastructure. Once a massive container and cargo vessel arrives at the Port of LA (Los Angeles) or the Port of Newark, what is the optimization of how quickly I can get those containers off the vessel onto truck beds and out to final delivery?” she said.

“That’s where you would potentially see startups playing in this space and adding value.”

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