Autonomy realities

COMMENT: The promise of autonomy in shipping is certainly getting pulses racing, if the patter from September’s London International Shipping Week (LISW) is anything to go by, writes Carly Fields.

It seemed no matter the headline topic of the 150-plus events going on during LISW, many couldn’t resist going off on an autonomy tangent at one point or another.

Listening to the chatter, you could be forgiven for thinking that self-thinking, self-steering, self-managing ships could arrive at ports any day now. As a terminal operator, you might have gone back to berate your operations team for not being ready for those autonomous ships soon to be gently manoeuvring themselves on to your berth.

But, let’s inject a dose of reality into all this future talk: Fully autonomous ships are, frankly, a long way off. Even a panellist from Rolls-Royce – the self-appointed doyenne of all things autonomy in shipping – said it would be at least 40 years until we have fully autonomous ships.

While technology might be moving at a frighteningly fast speed in the right direction, the current fleet is, for the large part, not ‘future-ready’. And by future-ready, I mean eventually being able to think for themselves.

Also, while there are visions of how autonomous ships might look out there – Rolls-Royce again taking the lead here – they are a far cry of the standard designs for ships being ordered today. So, we can safely assume that there will not be a sudden flick of a switch as the cue for all the ships in the current 50,000-plus strong fleet to head to the recyclers on mass to make room for the mass of autonomous ships, taking up their positions as the new purveyors of global trade. Let’s be realistic.

There is also the distinction to be made between unmanned, automated and then autonomous ships, which will vary in their degree of self-support. The first, with crews operating ships from ashore – and likely crews boarding to guide the ship to berth, at least to start with – is a realistic proposition and one that is being worked on with some determination. The second is already happening with an increasing number of automated process on board newer ships. The third is where we are still in the sci-fi realm. As a side note, convoying, or platooning, as we are already seeing with trucks in Asia, Europe and the US, is a more likely step change that ports should be preparing for on the nearer horizon.

While ports need to be prepared for the ships of the future, future-proofing your port for fully autonomous ships may not prove to be money well spent. After all, 40 years from now, who knows what the modern port hub will look like. It may be able to think for itself when it comes to welcoming autonomous ships, making us all redundant. 


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