Shipbuilders and shipping firms believe autonomous ships will reduce accidents by removing potential for human error
Commercial drones and self-driving cars will soon be joined by fleets of autonomous cargo ships that navigate the world’s oceans using artificial intelligence.
Several shipbuilders and shipping firms in Japan have joined forces to develop remote-controlled cargo vessels that could be launched by 2025, according to the country’s Nikkei business newspaper.
The ships would use the internet of things – connecting a range of devices over the internet – to gather data, such as weather conditions and shipping information, and plot the shortest, most efficient and safest routes.
By removing the potential for human error, the companies believe the technology could dramatically cut the number of accidents at sea.
Mitsui OSK Lines, Nippon Yusen and other firms will invest hundreds of millions of dollars developing the technology required to steer as many as 250 ships through busy shipping lanes and, according to the Nikkei, boost Japan’s sagging share of the global shipbuilding market.
Their plans to bring the same degree of autonomy to commercial ships that is already present in the skies and on the roads comes after Rolls-Royce said last year it was planning to help develop unmanned ships.
The company said it envisaged a remote-controlled local vessel becoming operational by the end of the decade, and an autonomous, unmanned ocean-going vessel following in 2035.
“This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist,” Rolls-Royce’s vice-president of marine innovation, Oskar Levander, told a symposium in Amsterdam last year.
“We will see a remote-controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”
Unlike Rolls-Royce’s ships, which will be guided by a captain and crew from a land-based control hub, the Japanese vessels will not be fully unmanned to begin with, according to the Nikkei.
The European Union is also funding research into unmanned maritime navigation, while Norway plans to launch an autonomous and fully electric cargo ship next year that will carry fertilisers between three ports in the country’s south.
The vessel will be manned at first, but will be operated remotely in 2019 and become fully autonomous the following year.
Similar technology is already in military use. Last year the US navy launched an experimental self-driving warship, Sea Hunter, that is designed to hunt for enemy submarines.
The 40-metre (132ft) vessel can cruise on the ocean’s surface for two to three months at a time without a crew or anyone controlling it remotely.