The concept of autonomous ships is nothing new. Various companies are exploring ways to make ships virtually steer themselves at all times. This would be beneficial to the cargo shipping industry, but the concept may go well beyond that. If the Yara Birkeland is an example of what the future holds, unmanned ships may be coming to market a lot sooner than people think.

Unmanned Ships By 2020 or Sooner?

Although current regulations do not allow for ocean-traversing autonomous ships just yet, Norway is working on a solution that will set an interesting precedent. The Yara Birkeland is a ship which will operate close to the Norwegian coast and travel between three of the country’s ports. That may not sound all that shocking, but this particular vessel may become the first unmanned ship to traverse oceans in the coming years. In fact, it may do so as early as 2020.

Big changes are coming in shipping regulations. The UN’s International Maritime Organization is discussing whether or not unmanned ships should operate across oceans. Assuming it approves the idea, crewless (cargo) ships will be coming to an ocean near you a lot sooner than originally anticipated. This will have several interesting results, including cheaper shipping options, fewer accidents, and fewer delays. For the cargo shipping industry, all of these benefits are significant.

However, this technology is not just designed for cargo ships. Rolls-Royce is investing in autonomous technology for the commercial sector. In fact, the company demonstrated a prototype of such a ship not too long ago. Although it is not necessarily designed for passengers, the concept does open up a lot of new possibilities. It is the world’s first remote-controlled unmanned commercial ship. The aesthetics are not all that pleasing to the eye, but there is still a lot of time to fix that.

There are always drawbacks to such concepts, though. Removing experienced crew from ships is always a risk to be taken into account. Investing in this technology may not be all that profitable for quite some time to come. General safety needs to be taken into account, as well as the economics of unmanned autonomous ships. More discussion around these topics will happen before the regulation catches up with innovation.

This autonomous technology may very well expand into the commercial tourism sector in the future. Unmanned cruise ships may not arrive anytime soon, but some steering tasks might be taken over by computers in the coming years. That would free up staff to aid passengers when needed and contribute to a more pleasant experience overall. That is what some companies are hoping for, at least. The economic benefits may not necessarily outweigh the downsides. Only time will tell if this is a feasible venture or not.

The Yara Birkeland will set the tone for autonomous ships of the future. Depending on how well it performs, we may see an accelerated rate of development in this industry. An unsuccessful test may cause a few companies to pull out and wait until more progress is made. These are exciting times for autonomous contraptions of all kinds, ranging from cars to ships and everything in between. It is just a matter of time until this technology comes of age, but it will not necessarily become a mainstream solution right away.