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According to recent estimates, 90% of sea accidents and casualties are caused by human error, resulting in marine liability insurance claims of over $1.5 billion. Because the transportation industry is linked to global trade, as more countries get industrialized, the shipping industry will get bigger and the risk of marine accidents and casualties will increase.

Forecasts indicate that seaborne trade will increase by 33% before 2030. As a result, calls for the development of autonomous vessels have increased significantly. So, how close are we to these self-sailing vessels? Well, with studies showing that automation may boost performance in the shipping industry by 90%, the answer is: very close.

What autonomous shipping means

Autonomous shipping describes the piloting of a sea vessel using artificial intelligence (AI) and a collection of sensors. The sensors are, in effect, the eyes of the ship, and they include high-definition cameras, radar, lidar, sonar, and thermal imaging. The AI system acts as an electronic brain, steering the vessel based on the input it receives from the sensors.

Per Lloyd’s Register, there are seven autonomy levels (AL) in shipping. They range from AL0 to AL6, with AL0 signifying a ship that’s controlled entirely by humans. Meanwhile, AL6 describes a vessel that’s piloted by a computer system with no human involvement whatsoever.

The benefits of autonomous shipping

A representative from the Marine department at Rolls-Royce was quoted as saying, “Many facilities and systems on board are only there to ensure that the crew is kept fed, safe, and comfortable. Eliminate or reduce the need for people, and vessels could be radically simplified.”

Studies indicate that autonomous shipping will reduce labor costs in the shipping sector by up to 90%. Human error will also be minimized, leading to a decrease in accidents and insurance claims.

For individual ships, removing the section earmarked for crew accommodation will reduce construction costs by 5% and fuel consumption by 6%. More space will also be opened up for cargo, leading to more freight income.

Additionally, with autonomous shipping, vessel performance can be monitored thoroughly. The condition of the cargo onboard can also be observed and recorded adequately.

When will self-sailing vessels become widespread

The most prominent stakeholders in the shipbuilding industry are already working on developing self-sailing vessels. Furthermore, the progress recorded in the autonomous driving industry provides encouragement that self-sailing ships are within reach.

The first remote-controlled and crewless coastal vessels will reportedly be launched in 2025. Fully autonomous ocean-going ships are expected anytime from 2035.


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