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Autonomous Ships Form a $6B Industry. How Soon Until Unmanned Cargo Ships Set Sail?

A British drone ship is set to sail from the coast of Canada and attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean for Great Britain this fall in a voyage that could bring crewless cargo ships closer to reality.

The Maxlimer is just 36 feet long and could remain at sea for as long as nine months, give or take—depending on when it runs out of fuel, The Daily Beast reported. And though its small size is dwarfed by the massive hulk of its container-bearing brethren, the maritime industry will be closely watching the journey as a test case for how soon unmanned ships could take hold in international ocean shipping.

The upsides to commercial ships sailing without humans aboard—call them drone, robotic, unmanned or autonomous ships—are many. Without the need for kitchens and cabins and other people-centric facilities, shipbuilders and operators can devote more space to cargo, equipment and other mission-critical features, and removing personnel reduces disruptive variables, like illness and death.

Many functions aboard ships already are heavily automated with technology like GPS systems, and control that manage energy, power, alarms and more. Regulating seagoing autonomous craft, however, could trail much farther behind the advancements making drone vessels possible.

Research into on-board autonomy on board has been going on for about a decade or more, according to Corey Ranselm, the CEO of International Maritime Security Association, but early efforts focused on naval warfare ships are now creeping into larger vessels and the commercial shipping industry at large.

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“As autonomous shipping moves forward, there is going to be a ton of work that will need to be done by the [International Maritime Organization], its member states and governments around the world as to how this autonomous shipping is regulated,” he said in a YouTube video blog in October, adding “the regulatory compliance side of this is going to lag far behind the development of the technology.”

In October 2017, the maritime division of Rolls-Royce partnered with Google to use its Cloud Machine Learning Engine as a way to enhance the intelligence systems responsible for “detecting, identifying and tracking the objects a vessel can encounter at sea,” the company said in a release.

Konsberg Maritime acquired Rolls-Royce Maritime earlier this year, stating that the deal empowers “more sustainable, safe and secure marine operations for all vessel types through cutting-edge operational technology including automation, navigation and control systems. [Rolls-Royce Maritime’s] expertise also strengthens KONGSBERG’s leadership in maritime digitalisation, ship intelligence and enabling technologies for autonomous vessels.”

But despite growing interest in removing humans from large ocean craft, one of the biggest names in container shipping isn’t convinced that unmanned ships are anywhere close to a tipping point. Fifty-five-year-old A.P. Moller-Maersk CEO Soren Skou told Bloomberg last year that he believes unmanned container ships are unlikely to reach commercial viability during his lifetime, largely because operating without on-board personnel affords little by way of cost savings.

However, that same year Maersk turned to Sea Machines Robotics to equip newer container ships with “perception and situational awareness technology” in a move that marked the “first time computer vision, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and perception software will be utilized aboard a container vessel to augment and upgrade transit operations,” according to the technology firm’s statement. The system is similar to driver assistance steering in automobiles.

Maersk made sure to clarify that going unmanned isn’t in its plan. “Autonomous vessels are not an end goal for Maersk nor is unmanned vessels,” said P. Michael A. Rodey, the shipping giant’s senior innovation manager. “What is more of interest is the technology along the journey and the value it brings.”

If the crewless aspect isn’t a selling point, the fuel efficiency of robotic ships begs a closer look.

Neil Tinmouth, the chief operating officer for SEA-KIT, which makes the Maxlimer, told the Daily Beast that the vessel burns up “less than five percent” of the fuel required to power a traditional vessel. “This is a game-changer when it comes to the carbon footprint and environmental impact of these operations,” he added.

Though the Maxlimer could make history with its autumn unmanned sailing, numerous other maritime players have set 2020 or early into the next decade as the moving target for when they expect autonomous cargo ships to hit the high seas. Oskar Levander, who was vice president of innovation for Rolls-Royce and now is Konsberg’s senior vice president of concepts and innovation, said at the 2016 Autonomous Ship Symposium, “We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade,” CNBC reported.

The Maxlimer’s successfully moved cargo—oysters and beer—between the U.K. and Belgium in a sailing that lasted 22 hours. In Norway, other efforts are proving the case for robotic vessels. Together with Konsberg, fertilizer company Yara developed the Yara Birkeland, billed at its announcement in 2017 as the “world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, with zero emissions.”

Yara was looking for a way to move its product from its northern inland plant to southern coastal ports in Brevik and Larvik, a journey that traditionally involves 100 diesel trucks. “With this new autonomous battery-driven container vessel we move transport from road to sea and thereby reduce noise and dust emissions, improve the safety of local roads, and reduce NOx and CO2 emissions,” said Svein Tore Holsether, Yara’s president and CEO.

Originally slated to begin operating in the back half of 2018, Yara and Kronsberg now expect the Yara Birkeland to launch in 2020 at the earliest, replacing “40,000 truck journeys a year” and toting as many as 120 20-foot containers during each trip.

Demand from Europe and Asia Pacific is powering the robotic ship industry. Last year the market for autonomous ships was worth $6.1 billion, according to data from, which projects a CAGR of 7 percent to reach $13.8 billion by 2030.

Despite its leadership role in technology, the U.S. shipping industry is “behind” in the race for autonomy, McClatchy DC quotes U.S. Maritime Industry deputy administrator Richard Balzano as saying in April of last year. Operating just 81 seafaring vessels, U.S. commercial shipping lines are “on life support,” he added.