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Port Report: Maritime firms ask where they fit with robotic ships

Still years away from being viable freight carriers, autonomous shipping does pose existential threat to current maritime order.

People watch a scale model of the Yara Birkeland. (Photo: Kongsberg Maritime)

Autonomous shipping is slowly gaining greater attention in the maritime industry, prompting more industry players to figure out where they will fit in what may be the future of ocean freight.

As FreightWaves reported, Norwegian fertilizer manufacturer Yara International is still about a year away from testing and operating a fully autonomous container ship, the Birkeland.

With just 120 twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) of container capacity, the Birkeland is hardly a threat to the container shipping industry. The Birkeland will operate between coastal seaports spanning a top distance of only 30 nautical miles. Even then, it is expected to have a crew onboard initially for safety purposes.

But the development of autonomous shipping does represent a power shift toward cargo owners, who can own and operate their own assets and not rely on third-party fleets.

And the momentum for autonomous shipping is growing. One Sea, a consortium of Scandanavian maritime and technology companies, expects autonomous shipping could be in commercial use by 2025.  

One Sea, whose current members include Ericsson, ABB, and Wartsila, also ran their own trials of autonomous ships last year. Finland has given the consortium an area off its coast to test autonomous shipping.

Other major maritime firms are joining the initiative. One Sea recently announced that satellite service provider Inmarsat signed on as a member. U.K.-based Royal Institution of Naval Architects (RINA), one of the leading shipping design trade groups, and the research subsidiary of Japan’s NYK Group.

NYK itself is part of a national consortium that plans to demonstrate an autonomous tugboat in the latter half of 2019. But NYK is also said to be looking at the more ambitious project of an autonomous container ship transiting the Pacific Ocean.

Despite concerns about the impact on jobs, shipping automation may not be all about reducing workforces, but rather shifting jobs to the landside.

Maritime classification society DNV said it completed a project with marine engineering firm Hoglund and Norwegian ferry operator Fjord1 on developing a remote monitoring and control system for onboard propulsion and systems.

Of course, technology advances faster than regulation. Most of the early trials for autonomous shipping are taking place in coastal waters and being overseen by the country’s own maritime administrations.

For autonomous shipping to become a real factor in the market, it will have to be regulated through the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The meeting of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee, which concludes this week, is expected to establish a working group to propose regulations required around autonomous shipping.

One of the most important parts of the shipping industry, financing, is also looking at how it can play a role in the autonomous future. China’s ICBC Leasing, the largest owner-lessor of ships in the world, is said to be looking at how it can finance autonomous ships.

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