Shipowners are starting to realise that the appearance of unmanned commercial vessels is inevitable, says Paul Fanning
For years now, whenever unmanned shipping or autonomous vessels have been mentioned, there has been a tendency among industry professionals to say that the technologies are interesting, but are unlikely to be used for a very long time.
This attitude is understandable. Shipping is still trying to process the impact and benefits of digitalisation in general. Given this, it’s no surpise that the leap from there to the adoption of unmanned vessels seems daunting.
However daunting, though, this change is happening. In June last year, Rolls-Royce and Svitzer successfully demonstrated the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel – the tug Svitzer Hermod in Copenhagen. Rolls-Royce has also revealed its plans for an autonomous naval vessel.
Meanwhile, China Classification Society and HNA Technology Logistics Group launched the Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance in China at then end of June last year, while Norwegian company Yara unveiled its plan to launch a fully-autonomous cargo ship by 2020.
This level of development is starting to seep through to shipowners. According to the SMM Maritime Industry Report undertaken late last year, 36% of shipowner executives believe autonomous shipping to be the future of merchant shipping, while 90% of those in support believe that the use of unmanned ships will be routine in as little as 20 years.
This shift in perception is hugely significant. From something that a couple of years ago might have been dismissed almost as science fiction, the advent of unmanned shipping is now increasingly being accepted as an inevitability.
So great and radical change is coming. The question now is simply how extensive that change will be and how the industry deals with it.