The next best thing in shipping is already here – autonomous ships are being tested right now across the globe. Using advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and robotics to operate the ships, many of these vessels have already completed their maiden voyages.
On January 17, 2022, the Japanese vehicle-carrying ferry, the Soleil, successfully carried out a demonstration test of the world’s first fully autonomous ship navigation system. The vessel autonomously navigated over a 149-mile (240 km) stretch of Japan’s Iyonda Sea at a speed of 26 knots (30 m/h or 48 km/h).
Shortly afterwards, on January 24th 2022, the Mikage, slated to be the first autonomous container ship, began her maiden voyage from Japan’s Tsuruga Port in Fukui Prefecture, completing the run on 25th January at the Sakai Port in Tottori Prefecture. This historic voyage of approximately 300 km was part of the unmanned ship project MEGURI2040 led by the Nippon Foundation.
However, many believe the kudos of being the first autonomous container vessel rightfully belongs to the Norwegian vessel MV Yara Birkeland.
The ship completed her maiden voyage departing from Horten, Norway, on 18th November 2021 and arrived in Oslo by nightfall, after journeying approximately 35 miles. Additionally, the Yara Birkeland has the distinction of being the world’s first electric container ship. The vessel operates on battery-powered technology making it the first zero-emissions cargo vessel.
Why the sudden interest?
The development of autonomous shipping in recent years has been driven by several key factors. Autonomous shipping has great potential to reduce costs and the chances of incident while simultaneously improving efficiency and safety, together with addressing the shortage of skilled seafarers.
Autonomous ships are equipped with a range of sensors and systems that enable them to navigate the ocean safely, avoid obstacles, and make decisions based on real-time data weather and geographical data collected through radar, sonar, GPS, and computer vision, among others. Additionally, autonomous ships are usually connected to shore-based control centres that can monitor operations and provide support if necessary.
Addressing concerns regarding automation
While autonomous shipping has the potential to bring significant benefits, such as increased efficiency and reduced costs, there are also challenges and risks associated with these developments. These include concerns about cybersecurity, the need for new regulations and standards, and the impact of automation on employment in the maritime industry.
To this end, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is fast developing a goal-based instrument regulating the operation of maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS). During the 103rd session of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), held from the 5th to 14th of May 2021, a road map was developed for a non-mandatory Code, to adopt during the second half of 2024 as the first stage. Based on the experience gained in the application of the non-mandatory MASS Code, a mandatory MASS Code will be developed, envisioned to enter into force on 1 January 2028. Overall, the development of autonomous shipping is an exciting area of innovation with the potential to transform the shipping industry in significant ways. Perhaps it might be the way forward for a safer and more environmentally friendly shipping industry.