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Exploring the Limits with Autonomous Ships — What Does the Future Hold?

a photo of one of the autonomous ships envisioned to exist in today's world

In terms of overall commerce, seaborne trade accounts for 60 percent of all global trade. This $12 trillion-industry is massive, and it continues to expand year after year. Like other transportation sectors, technological advances are making their presence felt. While some are pursuing innovative port data integration systems, the major interest also lies in autonomous ships. But how close are we to seeing unmanned surface vehicles roam the waters?

The potential impact that autonomous ships have for the future is tremendous. This potential pertains not only to commercial seaborne trade but also to military operations. And the areas where autonomous shipping can improve current conditions are similarly noteworthy. From enhanced safety to reduced carbon emissions, autonomous ships and unmanned surface vehicles offer many unrecognized benefits. As a result, the rise of these vessels may be sooner than you think.

a photo quote of Vladimir Ponomarev in relation to technological advances in the creation of autonomous ships and unmanned surface vehicles
Vladimir Ponomarev shares one of the advantages of autonomous ships.

A Vision for the Autonomous Ships of Tomorrow

In order to appreciate the potential impact that autonomous ships offer, it helps to define autonomous shipping. Most notably, autonomous ships are automated vessels that don’t require human operation either on-site or in an operations office. Truly autonomous ships are completely unmanned surface vehicles that can make complex decisions on their own. Equipped with a complex set of sensors and artificial intelligence, autonomous ships are self-functioning. This fact is a noteworthy advancement among the automated vessels that exist today.

Soon, the seascape will change. Many envision maritime transportation to soon evolve into a system of operations very much like air travel. Though pilots are present, much of the air traffic is regulated by autonomous systems. In the same way, autonomous ships will likely participate in a similar network related to water traffic. Some of these will be completely unmanned surface vehicles equipped with technologies to handle the most challenging situations. And others will likely even be under the surface serving different roles.

a photo quote of Gavin Williamson in relation to technological advances in the creation of autonomous ships and unmanned surface vehicles
Gavin Williamson weighs in on technological advances in the creation of autonomous ships in relation to a rapidly evolving defense landscape.

Autonomous Ships, Unmanned Surface Vehicles, and Military Advances

Militaries across the globe are also paying attention to autonomous ships and related technologies. The Royal Navy recently announced a £75 million project involving two autonomous unmanned surface vehicles that can destroy sea mines. The same program will also explore underwater autonomous ships as well as mine-hunting drones. Likewise, the U.S. Navy already has an unmanned surface vehicle that autonomously operates the open waters. Named Sea Hunter, this autonomous vessel is a submarine hunting warship that can be at sea two to three months at a time. These technologies are thus having significant impacts on how military operations are being conducted.

In addition to these developments, the U.S. Navy is also actively shifting to smaller unmanned surface vehicles in its fleet. These smaller autonomous ships will be equipped with AI and sophisticated sensors to retrieve massive amounts of data. And as active unmanned warships, the fleet can be managed from a centralized center of command for military operations. This case allows resources to be better utilized with less time required to train soldiers.

a photo quote of Ravinder Singh in relation to technological advances in the creation of autonomous ships and unmanned surface vehicles
Ravinder Singh shares what they aim to do in ST Engineering amid the rise of autonomous ships.

Autonomous Ships and Commercial Trade: On the Verge of Change

Fully autonomous ships are expected to comprise nearly a fifth of all commercial shipping by 2040. However, advances in smaller shipping routes will likely occur faster. Finland has already been operating a testing zone for unmanned surface vehicles in its western ports. Likewise, routine shipping routes used by ferries offer another area where autonomous ships could be readily employed. In all likelihood, autonomous ships are likely to become part of the transportation menu very soon.

artificial intelligence and autonomous ships reshaping the seascape, a man in a control room navigating ships
A glimpse of the future: fully autonomous ships will comprise nearly a fifth of all commercial shipping by 2040.

The more complex use of autonomous ships is being explored commercially as well. The Maritime and Port Authority in Singapore recently announced the development of its $7.32 million Maritime Innovation Lab. Together with its collaborative partners, the lab will explore global routes for unmanned surface vehicles carrying goods. These routes will include traversing the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Using five autonomous ships worth $5.32 million, they hope to create a roadmap for autonomous seaborne trade transport.

Driving Change with the Many Advantages of Autonomous Ships

Certainly, digital technologies and advances in artificial intelligence have disrupted many industries. It appears sea transportation will fall in line with these other sectors as well. Autonomous ships offer many benefits that will continue to support its development moving forward. Most use less fuel, while several utilize electricity for propulsion. This case not only reduces costs but also reduces carbon emissions. Likewise, eliminating human error promotes greater safety and allows humans to enjoy greater efficiencies. Like autonomous cars, the arrival of autonomous ships appears to be inevitable.


For more on autonomous vehicles, check out this story on how collaboration is driving the development of self-driving cars and buses.

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