Companies are racing to fill the seas with autonomous drone ships

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WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

  • It seems like every mode of transport is going autonomous these days, and that’s because it is, and cargo ships of every kind are no exception


 

Forget Uber’s itsy bitsy diddy self-driving cars, and Otto’s self-driving semi-trucks, if you want a robot to haul a heavy load in the future, it might be worth considering investing in a self-piloting container ship instead – after all, unlike puny semi-trucks they can shift hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo all day every day.

 

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Plenty of companies have been dipping their toe in the water and building modest autonomous boats, such as the Roboats that will soon be entering service in Amsterdam, and the US military has also been filling the seas with its own autonomous ships – albeit of a very different kind, but soon those boats will be dwarfed by giants displacing hundreds of thousands of tonnes.

 

 

After all, as experts keep happily pointing, fully robotic cargo ships will be faster, safer, and ultimately cheaper to operate than their crewed counterparts – and that promise hasn’t escaped the attention of some of the world’s largest users of maritime freight who are all piling into the space and creating their own consortiums to explore the technology further.

Japan’s shipbuilders and freight companies, for example, who want to have the first cargo ship prototypes on the market as early as 2025, are working together to build technology that will let the new ships chart their own courses. The vision? An on board Artificial Intelligence (AI) that will gather data from various sensors and external data sources to assess the weather conditions and ocean traffic so they can constantly plot the safest and most fuel and time efficient routes.

 

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Meanwhile, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, two of the world’s largest mining companies, who are both on an automation tear, albeit with their mining operations, are both looking to adopt autonomous ships to transport millions of tons of iron ore, copper, and coal around the globe, and they believe that by doing so they could save the iron ore market alone as much as $86 billion per year.

A little less ambitiously and over in Norway chemical company Yara recently announced that they were teaming up with Konsberg to start trials of the world’s first all electric autonomous container ship along the coast from its Porsgrunn production plant to the ports of Brevik and Larvik in 2018. Initially it will be fully crewed, but the ship has been designed to be controlled remotely by 2019 and then, hopefully, sail itself from 2020.

 

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All of these projects, in part, look like they’re trying to build on a grand vision outlined by Rolls Royce last year where the company envisioned a future where the cargo ships of 2020 onwards ply the seas without a single crew member aboard, but, just like the first wave of self-driving cars and semi-trucks, ships will gain features, such as autonomous navigation, incrementally. No matter the timeline though it’s clear that the tide is beginning to turn and we’re headed towards a future where the seas are full of robotic ships, and robotic pirates… alright maybe not the last one but hey, why not?

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, Futurist and Founder of the 311 Institute is described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers.” Among other things Matthew keeps busy helping the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers ideate the next five generations of smartphones, and what comes beyond, the world’s largest chip makers envision the next twenty years of intelligent machines, and is helping Europe’s largest energy companies re-invent energy generation, transmission and retail.

Recognised in 2013, 2015 and 2016 as one of Europe’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an award winning author, entrepreneur and international speaker who has been featured on the BBC, Discovery and other outlets. Working hand in hand with accelerators, investors, governments, multi-nationals and regulators around the world Matthew helps them envision the future and helps them transform their industries, products and go to market strategies, and shows them how the combination of new, democratised, powerful emerging technologies are helping accelerate cultural, industrial and societal change.

Matthew’s clients include Accenture, Bain & Co, Bank of America, Blackrock, Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deutsche Bank, Deloitte, Deutsche Bank, Du Pont, E&Y, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, HPE, Huawei, JP Morgan Chase, KPMG, Lloyds Banking Group, McKinsey & Co, PWC, Qualcomm, Rolls Royce, SAP, Samsung, Schroeder’s, Sequoia Capital, Sopra Steria, UBS, the UK’s HM Treasury, the USAF and many others.

Comments
  • Chris Taylor#1

    29th June 2017

    Of course they are! This is the key to safety, cost, and slowing piracy!

    Reply
  • Iain Heron#2

    29th June 2017

    I agree with the first two – but I think piracy will probably increase with autonomous vehicles. Fewer ‘heroes’ on a robot crew.

    Reply
  • Oswald Fernandez#3

    29th June 2017

    Indeed!

    Reply
  • Malcolm Davies#4

    29th June 2017

    Scary Cyber attack… or have I watched to much Dr Who

    Reply
  • Jim McKee#5

    29th June 2017

    Readers: If you are interested in these, you need to read our reports on the key loggers who are attacking the Maritime segment and ports. Wapack Labs is the Intel provider for the MPS-ISAO.

    Reply
  • Matthew Lowe#6

    29th June 2017

    Going to need a big breakthrough in mechanical part durability. Most large ships have the equivalent of a small machine shop for good reason. Agree that the crew size will dwindle though, as with most fields over the coming decades.

    Reply
  • Jason Seward#7

    29th June 2017

    What could go wrong??!! Computer controlled ecological disasters waiting to happen. My computer NEVER crashes, no one EVER gets hacked, and ships don’t run aground or hit other ships.

    Reply
  • Dominic Hart#8

    15th September 2017

    I suppose one positive is that pirates won’t need guns.

    Reply
  • Scott M. Webb#9

    15th September 2017

    What will human’s do in the future?

    Reply
  • Graham Schreiber#10

    15th September 2017

    No employment will create social dispair & increase crime. Except in Europe, where all are becoming equal; as the Gov’t gains control of hearts & minds.

    Reply
  • Ian Smith#11

    15th September 2017

    inevitable! I was just talking to the guy who has sold the first set of fully autonomous Fendt vineyard tractors in the UK.. great technology and makes total sense… The required human intervention is waiting in the barn, where the ‘home bays’ are- making sure when they come home, they are serviced, fuelled and stocked with the spray/feed etc and they just keep on going…

    Reply
  • Devlin Fenton#12

    15th September 2017

    Nice!

    Reply

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