Ministry of Transport wants to test autonomous ships

What used to be known only about ghost ship stories could soon become reality on our rivers: autonomous ships carrying people and goods without a human captain on the bridge. Many in the industry go one step further and dream of ocean ships without crew.

That we will soon see the first autonomous cars, is commonly known. Ships, however, are less in the focus of the debate. Although obviously they, too, should get equipped with intelligence and autonomy. After all, they are slow and do not have to watch out for children playing on the side of the road. The Ministry of Transport probably sees this too and expects that the degree of automation in maritime transport will continue to increase (among other things, Norway is working intensively). The plan is now to identify areas in Germany where smart ships can be tested.

In its response to a request from the FDP parliamentary group, the Ministry of Transport notes that “urban areas with a branching waterway network such as Berlin, the Lower Elbe and large-scale ports” are particularly suitable for autonomous ships. However, when they will be on German waters, is currently still unclear. Relevant research is already underway, for example in the context of the Maritime Research Program. There, the potential of autonomous shipping is examined in individual projects. One example is “FernSAMS”: The Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services, together with the mechanical engineering company Voith and five other partners, is testing the “use of remote-controlled tractors for loading and unloading large ships”.

Autonomous ships: Norway creates sites for operating tests | logistik aktuell

Norway is establishing testing sites for autonomous ships. Two companies are now planning to build the world's first electric-powered, self-sailing vessels.

20 percent lower costs

The industry has ambitious plans. Optimists expect remote-controlled ships to be used on the open sea already in 2025. The necessary technologies already exist: The sensors are mature and commercially available. Also the algorithms for the “virtual captain” will soon be available. The owners’ hope: Autonomous ships are supposedly safer, more efficient and cheaper to build and operate. Up to 20 percent lower costs compared to conventional ships are being discussed.

Rolls Royce and the tugboat operator Svitzer gave a taste of the future last year: in Copenhagen they showed the first remote-controlled commercial ship, the 28 meter long tug “Svitzer Hermod”. The captain steered the vehicle from the Svitzer headquarters in the harbor. Among other things, almost three dozen monitors show him what is happening on the water, how well the ship’s systems are working and what the tractor’s radar and lidar sensors have detected.

“Lower costs and greater efficiency: these are the promises of using autonomous ships. Projects are running worldwide. Germany, too, wants to identify test areas.“

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But there are not only enthusiasts on the topic of “autonomous ships”. Critics expect new costs for the autonomous ships: for example, who should repair damage on board? Do you need in this case a second drive system, which would cost a lot of money? Such questions are still open. But maybe real sailors will be replaced in the future by robots who tackle problems. After all, they don’t get tired and have only minimal requirements for their accommodation on the ship.