The Rise of Autonomous, Unmanned Container Ships

by Dermot Tynan in Shipping

Posted on Sunday, February 19, 2023 at 12:26

Container ship steaming across an ocean

The shipping industry has seen tremendous advancements in technology over the past few decades. From the widespread use of GPS and electronic navigation systems to the increasing automation of cargo handling processes, the industry has undergone a radical transformation. Now, the next frontier in this evolution is the rise of autonomous, unmanned container ships.

Autonomous shipping promises to bring about a host of benefits to the industry, including increased efficiency, reduced operating costs, improved safety, and enhanced environmental sustainability. By eliminating the need for human crew members, shipping companies will be able to save on wages, food/catering, on-board accommodation and other related expenses. This, in turn, will allow them to offer more competitive rates to their customers, thus boosting their competitiveness in the global marketplace.

In addition to this, unmanned ships can operate 24/7 without the need for rest or break, allowing for faster and more efficient transportation of goods. They can also be designed to be more environmentally friendly, with features such as reduced emissions, fuel-efficient engines, and advanced recycling systems. Additionally, autonomous ships can be operated remotely from land-based control centres, reducing the risk of accidents and piracy, and improving the overall safety of the industry.

Another significant advantage of autonomous shipping is that it opens up new avenues for the development of smart shipping networks. These networks will be able to optimise routes, dynamically adjust to changing conditions, and make real-time decisions based on data and analytics. This will increase the overall efficiency of the shipping industry and help to reduce its carbon footprint.

However, the adoption of autonomous shipping is not without its significant challenges. One of the biggest hurdles is the need for substantial investment in new technology, training, and infrastructure. Shipping companies will need to invest in advanced sensors, communication systems, and control algorithms to make autonomous ships a reality. Additionally, there are concerns about the potential loss of jobs as a result of automation, which could lead to significant social and economic implications.

Unmanned ships provide an easier target for piracy, both from a physical and electronic perspective. It is unlikely that an autonomous ship will steer itself from pier to pier, so the requirement for pilots in each port will likely remain indefinitely. This in turn means that the pilot has to have an interface to drive the ship until it is clear of the port and can sail autonomously. Pirates could commandeer the unmanned ship and take control of this interface, even with advanced forms of cryptography. Alternately, unscrupulous entities could try and commandeer the ship remotely, taking over the navigation function using the same satellite interface as the parent company, driving the ship and its cargo to an alternate destination.

On the other hand, as ships have become larger and larger, and the cargo has evolved from bulk-loaded goods to shipping containers, the ratio of crew to tonnage has shrunk drastically. Tonnage has been growing steadily as ships have become larger and more specialised. In 1922, the average tonnage of a cargo ship was around 2,000 to 5,000 gross tons (GT). Fast forward to 2022, and the average tonnage of a cargo ship has increased significantly. The largest cargo ships in operation today can have tonnages of over 400,000 GT, with some of the newest ships exceeding 600,000 GT. Crew numbers have hovered in the 20-30 person range, across that period. The effect of this is that the cost of crew as a function of the GT has decreased by a factor of 20 or more. Fuel charges are still fundamentally the largest costs associated with shipping, coming in at around 40% of the cost.

The rise of autonomous, unmanned container ships represents a significant opportunity for the shipping industry to achieve new levels of efficiency, safety, and sustainability. While there are challenges to overcome, the potential benefits of this technology are too great to ignore. As the industry continues to evolve and adopt new technologies, we can expect to see even more radical changes in the years to come.

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