Once thought of as the stuff of science fiction or technologically impossible, so-called “ghost ships,” or unmanned, autonomous ships sailing the seas with full loads of cargo now appear to be on the horizon.


Proponents say these autonomous ships would be more environmentally friendly and also safer because they eliminate the risk of human error. For example, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, a marine risk firm, estimates human errors are responsible for 75 percent to 96 percent of all marine accidents.


The real driving force behind the push for autonomous ships, however, is to lower costs. Indeed, the largest cost of operating ships comes from employees. Eliminating salaries, the cost of training and benefits, and even feeding crews could have a significant impact on firms’ profit margins.


The largest industry development is recent tests of a planned autonomous ship in Norway. Last year, Norwegian fertilizer producer Yara and maritime technology firm Kongsberg Gruppe announced plans to build what they say will be the world’s first fully-electric and autonomous container feeder ship. The ship, YARA Birkeland, will initially operate as a manned vessel before moving to remote operation in 2019, and later to fully-autonomous operations in 2020. Kongsberg will develop and deliver all key enabling technologies for the vessel, including the sensors and integration required for remote and autonomous ship operations, in addition to the electric drive, battery and propulsion control systems.


YARA Birkeland will be used to ship fertilizer from Yara’s Porsgrunn plant to Norway’s Brevik and Larvik ports, the companies said. Brevik and Larvik ports are about 14 km and 26 km away from Porsgrunn, respectively, by road.


“With this new autonomous battery-driven container vessel, we move transport from road to sea, and thereby reduce noise and dust emissions, improve the safety of local roads, and reduce NOx and CO2 emissions,” says Svein Tore Holsether, President and CEO of YARA.


“By moving container transport from land to sea, YARA Birkeland is the start of a major contribution to fulfilling national and international environmental impact goals,” says Geir Håøy, President and CEO of Kongsberg. “The new concept is also a giant step forward toward increased seaborne transportation in general.”


Plans are underway in other countries as well. For instance, the government of Finland is looking at prototypes for an autonomous ferry. Then there’s China, which has set aside a 225-square-mile ocean area to test crewless ships. Another interesting development is that Japanese shipping lines have formed a consortium with the goal of having 250 remote-control cargo ships by 2025.


“It’s kind of a space race,” Sean T. Pribyl, a maritime attorney with Blank Rome, says about the YARA Birkeland in a McClatchy Washington Bureau article. “It was a total surprise for everyone in the industry.”


Although U.S. companies have the technology for autonomous ships, it’s largely confined to military vessels. For example, earlier this year, the U.S. Navy took control of a 132-foot sensor-equipped unmanned vessel, the “Sea Hunter”, which can remain away from port for months at a time. Other anti-submarine robot ships are on order.


Other factors which have hindered the U.S. commercial shipping industry’s move toward autonomous ships include a lack of designated open-water areas to conduct testing, sea lanes which are heavily transited, and regulatory obstacles. Pribyl estimates that U.S. commercial shipping interests lag at least five years behind some of their foreign counterparts in moving toward unmanned, autonomous commercial vessels.


“The U.S. commercial maritime industry is somewhat conservative in adopting new technology, so there’s a bit of wait-and-see as to what’s happening in Europe,” Pribyl says.


What impact do you think use of autonomous ships would have on your company’s supply chain?