Unmanned Commercial Ships

Auto-docking system on commercial vessels and on recreational marine and fishing vessels in Japan is expected to start after 2020. Robotic commercial ships are being developed by Japan, Norway, China, UK and others shipping nations.

Auto-docking system uses RTK (Real Time Kinematic) GNSS (Global Positioning) technology, which gathers precise satellite positioning information from a known point to the vessel, to provide accurate real-time positioning. Corrective data from digital repeater systems to improve positioning precision even further to accurately guide ships into docks or for navigation.

17 thoughts on “Unmanned Commercial Ships”

  1. One of my favorite writers is Captain Kelly Sweeney, columnist for Professional Mariner Magazine. he writes about problems of ships having Flags of Convenience and the like.

    One would think that the handling of a ship would be easier than the piloting of aircraft or the driving of an automobile.

    In point of fact, it is much harder–more akin to trying to steer plate tectonics while playing chess.

    What worriers me about this development is that such a vessel could become a hell of a bomb. Imagine three ships into New York’s harbor. On one side, a VLCC–on the other side, an LNG tanker.

    In the middle?

    A ship filled with ANFO.

    Texas City, all over again.

  2. No. The pirates also get their money from hijacking the millions and millions of dollars worth of cargo.

  3. Well, the good news is that a New Panamax going 20 knots has only about half the kinetic energy of a 747 doing .8 Mach at 30,000 feet. Smaller boom when it hits something.

    Seriously, being able to drive the ship autonomously across the ocean is easy – when you decide to enter port, there may be a lot of regulations. The ship may not be allowed autonomous movement within a restricted channel – requiring a pilot and maneuvering crew to board for “safety”. Just like everyone takes on a load of “electricians” to work the lights while transiting the Suez canal.
    Linehandling is where I have a lot of questions, how does the ship know when to tighten or slack the mooring lines? Non-trivial concern when you have humans on the pier putting them over the bitts and bollards.

  4. my concern is this could end up causing an issue like we see with airline pilots today… the boeing 737 max brought to light how different training is today and its leading to unintended consuquences with automation.. many of the people writing the code for these things dont know the basics anymore of aviation and id hate to see that spread to navigation

  5. Fully autonomous patrol boats are already in production by several countries. The US Navy is in a process of acquiring autonomous ships. All for a reason.

  6. That’s a false impression you can get from watching ships in a calm port: “it’s only mostly flat water!”.

    Well, not quite. The seas can be quite treacherous. A sudden storm or gale and your precious ship goes belly up or sinks.

    Humans also can fix your valuable ship if anything goes wrong. And a hulking thousands of tons ship has plenty of places for things to go wrong.

  7. Without the crew as hostages military and law enforcers can attack the pirates without fear of collateral human damages.

    With robotic navigation, the navigator can be totally armored and shielded from physical attacks. To get control of the ship would require too much time. Enough time to react to the attack in many different ways.

    Last resort could just be to shut down completely the engines and make the ship inoperative.

  8. No longer talking about ragtag pirates in a skiff with AK’s. We are talking about pirates that steal entire cargos.

  9. Maybe those unmanned ship will be good market for Starlink Internet.”unmanned ship” still need a good internet to remote control.

  10. But the pirates get their money from kidnapping the crew. Without crew, who are they going to kidnap? No, autonomous ships should decrease the rate of piracy…

  11. First, you have not factured in the time paying salaries for the sailors when the ship is at port. Could be anything between an extra 10% or an extra 100%, but let us for now assume that it is zero.

    Second, you have not compared the sum 100,00 USD with the fuel cost. For a 5000 TEU, the fuel consumption is about 75 tons a day [1] @ 20 knots, which results in a total fuel cost of 32775 USD [2] per day. A trip that lasts 2.5 weeks cost ~600 000 USD. So, the 100,000 USD in salaries is not insignificant.

    Third, having zero salary cost would allow steaming slower without increasing the salary cost. At 12 knots, the fuel consumption is more than halved [1], and the fuel consumption price is thus reduced to <300 000 USD (probably closer to 200 000 USD). If you had crew, your salaries would increase to 200 000 USD. Also, the interest on the boat would double, so reducing the speed to that point may not be profitable. There is obviously an optimum profitability point with respect to speed.

    This “optimal profitability point” is clearly pushed towards slower speeds by removing the salaries from the cost, so the savings would be somewhere between 14% (no speed reduction) and 57% (half speed). Please consider that some cargo may be cheap and may not need to be delivered quickly. For this market segment, these savings are probably significant.



  12. Its the same as when people talk about unmanned tanks. The Average person doesn’t seem to get how Often things break down on complicated pieces of machinery.

    Remember kids this isn’t the 40s or 50’s. Everything is made as cheaply as possible and with the intent that it breaks down in 5 years max.


  13. Let’s try the Risk vs. Return angle… 

    Virtually all modularized to transport cars, big machines, roadway equipment, cranes, are “staffed” by highly intelligent, competitive, yet calm and measured peoples — almost exclusively men — from all of the world’s Third World economies. Wages for a freighter hand run around $25,000 a year for Philippine mates, and from a bit less to almost three times as much for Greek, Cypriot, Argentine and other ‘tween-Third-and-First world realms. 

    And your average Super has what, 30 or so? And the trip across the ocean is rarely longer than 4 weeks, but mostly 2½ to 3½. Which divided by 52 is 0.0481 to 0.0673 years-of-a-year of professional mate labor per trip. At say $35,000 (median) a year, perhaps $2,000 per mate, or $60,000 for the 30-person compliment. Including the rather well paid First Mate, the even more well paid Navigator and the supremely paid Captain, it likely comes in at $100,000 a blow.  

    Now your basic Super Panama Max carries on the order of 5,000 TEU (until Panama canal itself is radically widened and deepened), to eventually be 13,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) 

    So, $100,000 divided by 5,000 is twenty bucks per container per one-way trip. Not very much.  

    And the crew can handle engine issues, plumbing problems, cooling problems, an endless sequence of tiny-container-issues-that-could-snowball-to-immense-badness.  

    You know? $20 & safety, or $0 and …
    Just saying,
    GoatGuy ✓

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