Autonomous Shipping: Trends And Innovators In A Growing Industry

Shipping - Shutterstock photo
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The emergence of advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, cloud computing, big data, and augmented reality have brought the idea of autonomous vehicles to reality. This disruption in the transportation industry just isn’t limited to vehicles on the road; it has ramifications for vessels at sea.

Here’s an overview of autonomous vessels and the progress so far.

Seeing the work around autonomous vessels in the past decade, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) took the first step to address autonomous ships in 2018. It used the term “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS)” and defined it “as a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction, and broadly laid out levels of autonomy.”

  • Ship with automated processes and decision support: Majority shipboard systems are operated and controlled by seafarers; however, some operations may be automated. 
  • Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: Seafarers are onboard although the ship is controlled and operated from another location.
  • Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location with no seafarers on board.
  • Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

The interim guidelines for autonomous ship trials were approved by the IMO in 2019.

Issues and Initiatives

The projects around autonomous vessels have mostly been in response to counter issues in the global shipping industry. With 90% of the world trade being moved by ships, the shipping industry is the backbone of the global economy. However, accidents are common at sea, and various studies cite human error as the leading cause of marine accidents.

According to an Allianz study, human error is responsible for between 75% and 96% of marine casualties. The “Annual Overview of Marine Casualties and Incidents 2019” published by the European Maritime Safety Agency found that human action (such as inappropriate maneuvering or fatigue) represented 65.8% of accidents. It is estimated that with advanced technologies, the data produced by the shipping industry can be turned into insightful information such as real-time findings and alerts which can help reduce accidents.

Europe has been at the forefront of efforts to realize autonomous ships with Rolls-Royce and Kongsberg Maritime playing major roles. Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) and Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Network (MUNIN) are two initiatives towards the development of autonomous ships in Europe. In early 2018, Rolls-Royce and Finnish state-owned ferry operator Finferries began collaboration on a new research project called Safer Vessel with Autonomous Navigation (SVAN), based on the findings of AAWA research project.

To boost its AI capabilities, Rolls-Royce collaborated with Intel in October 2018 for a more sophisticated and intelligent shipping system, in an attempt to make commercial shipping safer and more efficient. Towards the end of 2018, Rolls-Royce and Finferries successfully demonstrated the world’s first fully autonomous ferry in the archipelago south of the city of Turku, Finland.

In April 2019, Kongsberg Maritime (NSKFF) completed the acquisition of Rolls-Royce Commercial Marine (RRCM). The integration of the two companies strengthens the leadership in maritime digitalization, ship intelligence and enabling technologies for autonomous vessels.

Recently, Kongsberg Maritime, working along with Bastø Fosen and the Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA), announced the world’s first adaptive ferry transit conducted during normal service wherein it carried passengers and vehicles.

“The vessel demonstrated fully automatic control from dock to dock and is a key step forward in the integration of autonomous technology into everyday shipping operations,” read the press release.

In fact, even start-ups like Shone are enabling conventional ships with the power of AI. In 2018, the CMA CGM Group, a leading worldwide shipping group, partnered with Shone to leverage its capabilities to place AI systems on board container ships. Once the work is finalized, Shone’s technology would facilitate the work of crews on board, whether in decision support, maritime safety or piloting assistance.

In South Korea, SK Telecom and Samsung Heavy Industries (SHI) announced the successful testing of the industry’s first 5G-based autonomous and remote-control navigation test platform and built Remote Control Center in December 2019. The test marks an important step towards commercialization of 5G-based autonomous and remote-control navigation technologies. The two companies are leveraging 5G, IoT and AI technologies to improve both safety and productivity through real-time detection and control of all equipment and facilities within the shipyard.

Fighting pollution

The rise of oceanic traffic has led to increased pollution levels, with commercial marine shipping industry being a major contributor to global air pollution. It is estimated that shipping vessels account for more than 3% of global carbon-dioxide emissions. To combat the rising pollution, Yara Birkeland and Kongsberg have teamed up to build the world's first autonomous and zero-emission container vessel. Its launch is expected in 2020, and Yara Birkeland will gradually move from manned operation to fully autonomous operation during its first two years of operation.

Japan is working on autonomous ships to combat its widely documented problem of aging pollution. Data published in 2015 revealed that “56% of Japan’s 20,000 seafarers involved in domestic cargo shipping were aged 50 or over.” Given these figures, Japan is working on viable solutions to manage its maritime with lesser manpower.

The first consortium to work on autonomous ocean transport system was launched in 2017 and included names such as Mitsui, National Institute of Maritime, Port and Aviation Technology, Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, Nippon Kaiji Kyokai, Japan Ship Technology Research Association, and Akishima Laboratories. Much work has been done since then, such as the launch of Fleet Optimal Control Unified System (FOCUS). NYK conducted its first successful trial in 2019. It is estimated that Japan’s “unmanned ship ‘economy’ could be worth $9 billion per year by 2040 and account for 50% of Japanese coastal ships in service by that time.”

Beyond the commercial, autonomous vessels are of great interest for military purposes. Last year, Sea Hunter reached a new milestone for autonomy. Sea Hunter, which is a Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel (MDUSV) of the Office of Naval Research designed by Leidos (LDOS), successfully autonomously navigated from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. China unveiled its own unmanned warship in 2019.

Final word

The work on autonomous ships is catching pace, and investors should notice. In the future, the ocean will be a mix of sails and sensors.

Disclaimer: The author has no position in any stocks mentioned. Investors should consider the above information not as a de facto recommendation, but as an idea for further consideration. The report has been carefully prepared, and any exclusions or errors in reporting are unintentional.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Prableen Bajpai

Prableen Bajpai is the founder of FinFix Research and Analytics which is an all women financial research and wealth management firm. She holds a bachelor (honours) and master’s degree in economics with a major in econometrics and macroeconomics. Prableen is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA, ICFAI) and a CFP®.

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