Autonomous cars are on the way and we already have drones that can find their own way. Now the shipping industry is looking into the benefits of self-driving boats.

They could cut transport costs by as much as 22%. But don’t expect autonomous boats to hit the high seas until 2035.

On the face of it, automation for ships should be straightforward. They have to go from Point A to Point B in a straight line, so it should be the simplest form of self-driving transport. But the constantly changing conditions and currents mean that an autonomous ship could require a seriously complex set of algorithms.

Lower fuel and labor costs

If the shipping companies can master the complexities, though, then they could benefit from reduced fuel consumption and a massive reduction in labor costs. The industry is already poaching some of the most gifted engineers from the autonomous car world and investigating how autopilot systems on planes can be adapted for life on the ocean waves.

Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC leads the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative and is working with educational institutions and companies around the world. A recent feasibility study came to the conclusion that autonomous ships can work, but they will require an arsenal of infrared, laser sensors, cameras and radar systems.

A number of ferries and ships in the Baltic region and Finland have already been kitted out with sensors and cameras to start collecting data.

Could autonomous ships be on the way?

Look to the Cloud

A big obstacle is the ship to shore communications, as the ship’s central computer would need constant communication to make autonomous transport viable. Advances in Cloud computing and more satellites, resulting in cheaper bandwidth, mean we are close to breaching that particular barrier.

Inmarsat PLC has launched its Fleet Xpress service to service the shipping industry specifically and it offers secure, high-bandwidth satellites. At the moment this is useful for diagnostic work and monitoring services, but it opens the door to full automation as well.

The shipping industry is under siege thanks to in part due to the slump in crude oil prices and more localized manufacturing. Marine sales at Rolls-Royce have fallen by 23% and 16% in the last two years.

Could autonomy save shipping

Rolls-Royce, no longer affiliated with the luxury car maker, is betting that a push to smarter vessels will lift the fortunes of its struggling marine business. The prolonged slump in crude prices has led to a sharp drop in demand for sophisticated offshore vessels. Marine sales at Rolls-Royce fell 23% last year after declining 16% the prior year when oil prices started to slump.

Complete automation could lead to reduced prices, which could breathe new life into the shipping industry. Nothing is ever that simple, of course, and air freight could even go the same way or develop its own solutions to lower costs and keep its stranglehold on the logistics industry.

This isn’t happening any time soon

Even if automated ships are on the way, they won’t be here for a long time. First the industry must refined the control systems, then it will have to deal with the regulators.

There’s a long road ahead and the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative believes that we will not see autonomous boats on the water until 2035. It’s a long-term commitment then, in a rapidly changing world, but taking the Captain from the wheel might be the key to the shipping industry’s future.

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