News: 'Pilotless' Commercial Ship to Set Sail by 2020

'Pilotless' Commercial Ship to Set Sail by 2020

A Norwegian shipping company says it will launch an unmanned container ship within four years, as the shipping industry begins to apply driverless technology to commercial sea transportation.

Norway-based Yara International ASA claims the vessel will be the world's first autonomous commercial ship in operation when it sets sail by 2020.

The ship will begin remote-controlled shipments of fertilizer by the end of next year from Porsgrunn to ports in Brevik and Larvik in Norway by end of next year.

Yara claims the self-piloted vessel will reduce trips by commercial trucks to and from the sites by 40,000 truck journeys a year.

Kongsberg Gruppen, a merchant marine, offshore, oil and gas industry, defence and aerospace systems provider; will design and produce the ship. This will include integrating the sensors, onboard computers, and mapping software for the autonomously piloted commercial vessel. Kongsberg Gruppen will also integrate the ship's electric drive, battery, and propulsion control systems.

Self-piloting systems could help to saves lives and reduce the environmental impact of commercial shipping, which accounts for more than 90% of all goods distributed worldwide.

The risk of death and injury, for example, would obviously be mitigated in the event of a collision or if an unmanned ship were to sink.

Pilotless vessels with advanced sensors and machine-taught systems that could monitor and avoid obstacles better than humans could help to reduce the threat commercial shipping poses to marine wildlife, especially mammals, such as whales and dolphin; which are often struck and killed by shipping vessels.

Automatic pilot features have been available for motor-powered and sailing vessels for decades. However, for commercial shipping, direct human intervention is often required to pilot boats in the event of extreme weather and wave conditions. Under international maritime law, a human pilot must be able to assume control of the ship in the event of an emergency, similar to how level 2 and level 3 driving for cars and trucks requires that human driver must be ready to take control of the car at all times.

Truly self-piloted commercial ships will, like driverless cars and trucks, at least require the same level of sensor technologies and neural network-enabled computers with self-learning capabilities that Level 3 and more advanced driverless cars will use in the future. Kongsberg Gruppen will also have to demonstrate that its ship's onboard computer can be self-taught to navigate through extreme weather and traffic conditions specific to shipping.

Cover photo via Yara International

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