Automate The Freight: Autonomous Ships Look For Their Niche

It is by no means an overstatement to say that life as we know it would grind to a halt without cargo ships. If any doubt remained about that fact, the last year and a half of supply chain woes put that to bed; we all now know just how much of the stuff we need — and sadly, a lot of the stuff we don’t need but still think we do — comes to us by way of one or more ocean crossings, on vessels specialized to carry everything from shipping containers to bulk liquid and solid cargo.

While the large and complex vessels that form the backbone of these globe-spanning supply chains are marvelous engineering achievements, they’re still utterly dependent on their crews to make them run efficiently. So it’s not at all surprising to learn that some shipping lines are working on ways to completely automate their cargo ships, to reduce their exposure to the need for human labor. On paper, it seems like a great idea — unless you’re a seafarer, of course. But is it a realistic scenario? Will shipping companies realize the savings that they apparently hope for by having fleets of unmanned cargo vessels plying the world’s oceans? Is this the right way to automate the freight?

Lights-Out Shipping

Details of the plan being proffered by shipping company NYK Lines are slim so far, limited to a few press releases with little in the way of technical discussion. But from what we gather, something like 30 shipping companies have formed a consortium called DFFAS, for “Designing the Future of Full Autonomous Ships.” Under the sponsorship of the Japanese government, they’ve built a Fleet Operation Center that will support the operation of crew-less cargo vessels. From the few photos released, the FOC certainly looks the business — sleek consoles, flatscreen monitors everywhere, subdued lighting, and seats for a few operators.

NYK Line's Fleet Operation Center in Japan
Part of the Fleet Operation Center that NYK Lines built to test autonomous domestic shipping. Source: NYK Lines

The operations center will provide support for vessels working the coastal trade routes up and down the Japanese archipelago, with a short test voyage scheduled for February of next year. The 236-nm run will take the MV Suzaku, an 85-m long container cargo vessel, from Tokyo Bay down the coast to the port in the city of Ise. There’s no word on how or if the ship has been retrofitted for the voyage, but chances are good that since she was built in 2019, she likely had all the latest navigational, communications, and computer gear installed.

Container ship MV Suzaku
MV Suzaku, the target of the upcoming automation test. By AlfvanBeem, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s interesting about all this is the overall scale of the problem, both in terms of the ship and in terms of the route. The ship itself is rated at 749 gross tons —  a maritime measurement of the overall internal volume of a ship — and is therefore a relatively small ship, at least compared to behemoths like transoceanic container vessels and supertankers. A smaller ship should be easier to control than a larger ship. A small ship like the Suzaku is also designed to operate close to shore, rather than venture out into the open ocean like the bigger vessels. This has pros and cons for an autonomous test: on the one hand, the test vessel will always be close enough to the FOC that low-latency, direct radio contact should be possible; on the other hand, unlike the open ocean, littoral routes like the one the test will be conducted over tend to be crowded with other ships.

In it for the Short Haul

Route selection for these tests also reveals a lot about the economic problems autonomous shipping is intended to solve. A large container ship may spend weeks on a voyage, over which time a lot can go wrong mechanically. Crews on these vessels are constantly performing repairs on equipment, and when there’s nothing to fix, there are always preventive maintenance tasks to work on. The deck crews of these vessels are always busy, too. Ocean-going container ships are especially labor-intensive; the constant vibration and motion of the ship require that crews check the lashings of containers regularly, to make sure none work themselves loose in transit.

There’s also the fact that long-haul vessels are already highly automated. The evidence for that is plain to see in any of the hundreds of vlogs that mariners post — just look for “container ship tour” in YouTube and you’ll find plenty to choose from. What I’ve noticed from watching these videos (and I’ve watched a lot of them; JeffHF and Chief MAKOi are among my favorites) is how empty these ships are, at least relative to their size and complexity. One very rarely sees many of the vlogger’s crewmates, and even accounting for camera-shyness or privacy concerns, there just don’t seem to be that many people needed to run one of these big ships.

In-shore shipping, though, seems like it might be a riper target for automation. Most of the tasks that automation would be bad at — performing maintenance on the ship, checking cargo — are less of a factor on voyages that have many legs with more frequent port calls. Automating the other stuff — navigation, steering the ship, and perhaps even shoreside operations — seems like it would have a bigger impact here.

Automation vs. Demographics

There also appears to be a social engineering aspect to the selection of in-shore shipping for NYK’s automation tests. Like other developed countries, Japan is facing a demographic crunch in a lot of industries, especially transportation, where the workforce is trending older overall. There are probably a lot of reasons for this trend, but it may be that in-shore shipping tends to attract older, more experienced workers, who might not want to take contracts that will result in months at sea away from their families. Mariner vlogs seem to support that; most of the crew members on the long-haul vessels tend to be on the young side.

So it would seem that in-shore rather than transoceanic shipping would present the biggest bang for the buck to shipping lines. But will it work? That remains to be seen, of course, but Japan appears to be placing a big bet on it. The timeline of the DFFAS project extends out to 2040, and lists a goal of 50% of domestic vessels being fully automated by that point. Between here and there, the consortium aims to have 10% of the domestic fleet automated by 2030, and even has a bullet point for extending some of the core technologies to oceangoing vessels within just a few years.

Setting goals like these are what drives innovation, and we applaud the effort. And in-shore, domestic shipping seems like the logical place to start, and may well bear fruit in the near future. But it seems a bit of a reach to completely replace the crews of larger oceangoing vessels, what with so many tasks that are best performed by skilled human hands. We suspect it’ll be a while before we see lights-out vessels plying these routes.

46 thoughts on “Automate The Freight: Autonomous Ships Look For Their Niche

  1. A fully autonomous ship seems like penny pinching at its finest.

    A cargo ship doesn’t have a lot of crew to start with. And the crew is mainly there to handle maintenance, paper work, and handling cargo. Not to mention respond to other ships having issues and aid in those situations.

    A crewless ship wouldn’t be of much help, and would have a larger risk of breaking. Though, just getting it into port is likely a fun exercise. Though port fees would likely be larger for such a ship regardless since the port likely needs to do more work.

    Not that the cheapest mode of transport has much reason to get cheaper. Especially when the marine industry is so far behind when it comes to reducing their emissions.

    1. They invent a way to 100% eliminate the waste and inefficiency of transporting pointless human cargo, you complain about not reducing emissions. What is wrong here?

      How much cargo needs to be handled in the middle of the ocean?

      “port fees would likely be larger for such a ship ”

      Yeah with no humans on board, zero cost for employee security, no problems with customs, no issues with disease quarantine or payroll or overtime. No worries about scheduling employees for departure. Sounds like they should get a big discount.

      1. Those big container ships need a staff of humans to handle all the repair and PM maintenance issues that come up. There is no way around this. If something critical breaks and there is no one around to fix you may be looking at a total loss.

          1. Staff on board is there for a very good reason. They are not only technical teams but also emergency teams (oil spill and fire). Environment is highly corrosive (even some stainless steels get consumed), cargo rogging must be regularry inspected not to mention simple things like navigation lights replacement. About navigation – trains take fixed routes and it took a lot to make them unmanned and still they are mostly not unmanned. What about terrosist issues? Remote control means remote hacking.
            It looks interesting and it is high time to start this technology but personally I would keep small group of highly trained personnel on board of those ships anyway just to react on time in case of fire, oil spill, cargo loss, communication loss etc. Let say master, chief engineer and ETO. At least for first 15 years of testing. Later on we can get rid of master ;)

      2. Virtually all harbors require you to hire a pilot to guide the ship in, said pilot ALWAYS comes on board and guides the ship from there.

        You need tug boats to move the ship in tight spaces. How will you attach the ropes with nobody onboard?

        Things break. They always will. If for example the engine gives up in a storm, nobody will be around to fix it. By the time anyone could reach the ship, it might be sunk.

    2. Regarding emissions, the emissions from cargo ships these days are intentional. Modern marine engines are fully computer controlled, and have settings to choose between maximum efficiency and the various emissions limits imposed by nations within their boundaries. The cost of fuel being the number one operational cost, this can only be addressed by international treaties limiting the emissions of ships outside any territorial waters.

    3. @Alexander Wikström said: “A fully autonomous ship seems like penny pinching at its finest. A cargo ship doesn’t have a lot of crew to start with.”

      Crewed ships are SARS-CoV-2 incubators. The crew are quarantined and cannot leave the ship until it returns to a crew member’s home port. The ship becomes a coronavirus jail of sorts. Once a crew member is allowed to disembark, they refuse to embark again. This causes crew shortages.

      There’s another problem with these ships whether they’re autonomous or not. What’s the point of sending a ship to a port that doesn’t have enough dock workers to tend to it? If a government is stupid enough to pay dock workers more money to stay at home doing nothing compared with actually working, you end up with lots of ships moored offshore forever waiting to be serviced. That’s what is happening now in the U.S.

      1. Looking at the current situation during a pandemic that is closely monitored by governments and social media to the extent that it is a dick measuring contest of who can be the most restrictive. Then yes. The world becomes an odd place.

        Especially when one looks back at the news a year ago when the situation were even less manageable due to a lack of vaccines. Then yes, the shipping industry had major problems with providing their crews reasonable working conditions.

        And to a degree, shipping companies still has, and had such issues before hand. But this doesn’t change the fact that a cargo ship has a lot of jobs that largely requires people to be on board.

        Driving the ship is the easy thing to automate, but honestly is also the thing that already largely is automated. The crew on board does maintenance, and ensuring the smooth operations of the vessel and cargo in general.

        Container ships needs to have their cargo secured and repeatedly checked that it still is secure.
        Bulk carriers needs their cargo holds cleaned out between different types of cargo as to not cross contaminate the cargo. And this isn’t done in port since it takes days.

        Then there is ensuring that navigation lights, horns and that the engine all works as intended.

        Not to mention responding to the occasional emergency from some other ship. This is however rare thankfully.

  2. I am ETO. I don’t have long carrier on ships but from what I saw I can tell to DFFAS people: go F*** yourself and good luck ;) In order to have enough reliable ships to allow them to be fully autonomous, first, they will have to spend more money that they will pay crew for entire lifespan of ship. With decline of component quality (chinesium strikes again) there is no chance DFFAS people will build something 100% reliable. Second, I don’t believe that insurance companies will allow ships to sail without humans, just because you need somebody to blame if something bad happens.

    1. Humans might be a poor backup for systems that needs quick reaction times, like cars.
      But for a ship, time is usually existing in larger quantities. And ships already as is run on auto pilot most of the time. The simple auto pilot that knows how to go in a straight line that is.

      But yes, I bet insurance doesn’t cover the ship mindlessly ramming over another ship, boat, or port.

      And likewise I would hazer to guess that most ships in distress wouldn’t consider the crewless cargo ship as any help.

      Though, thieves/pirates might have a field day with these completely unmanned ships. Who’s there to stop them?

      But the ship itself could just break and lost at sea. After all, the ocean is fairly unforgiving at times.

      1. “thieves/pirates might have a field day with these completely unmanned ships. Who’s there to stop them?”

        The lack of human controls will stop them. How can you steer the ship when there is no wheel? No helm controls, no access to the software. Between countermeasures and traps the pirates are guaranteed to have a bad time and will probably be snared and arrested.

        1. Don’t worry I’m sure the designers will leave some USB ports that can be used to access the controls. Its practically guaranteed that any implementation will have and need on-board access.

          Booby traps? Are you nuts. What happens when the humans who do repairs and maintenance run afoul of one your deadly devices. You get sued into the poor house and probably do some well deserved prison time with a big guy called “bubba”.

          And oh you can forget about Maritime insurance when they see you turned the boat into a floating death trap.

        2. Get a couple of guys on board, disable the engine and use a tug boat to tow it into harbour. As for traps? Are you kidding, no commercial vessel is allowed to have any anti-piracy weapons, traps would be outlawed by international treaty and no ship that had them would be allowed into any port.

        3. A ship with no helm controls? Are people that silly?

          Bit like a plane with no cockpit controls or a car with no steering wheel. Everything’s fine until it isn’t and we still haven’t reached a suitable solution to the “who is responsible” problem. That one is going to take years to solve and people will be harmed and die needlessly whilst we repeat the same mistakes of yesteryears.

        4. No reason to steer the ship, nor steal the ship.

          Cutting open a container takes a minute or two, a few people with angle grinders or bolt cutters can likely open over a hundred in an hour or two. Search about the load and take anything of sufficient value that they find. With no one else onboard, they have plenty of time for themselves.

          The shipping company will then need to compensate their customers for the lost or damaged cargo, just like any other lost cargo.

          And this isn’t particularly economical. Considering how part of the job for the people on cargo ships is currently to ensure that the cargo is properly affixed to the ship, and that it doesn’t come loose during the journey.

          Without a crew, cargo is likely to get loose more often. And when it does, no one is there to fix it before it becomes a problem. Stolen cargo is just another problem on the list.

      2. You can’t really steal anything off a container ship, you need a container crane to do so, in nearly all cases, they are just holding the crew hostage and trying to hold the cargo long enough that the company just pays the ransom to get things moving again.

        It is very rare that the cargo is desired, the only accounts of cargo theft this century have been general cargo (EG, everything is hand loaded rather than containers) and fishing vessels. And in those cases, those ships weren’t even supposed to be there (Weapons smuggling, illicit fishing, etc)

        1. A few bolt cutters or angle grinders and an afternoon to oneself on a ship full of cargo, then it is just a lottery.

          Not all containers are full of junk, there is plenty of stuff put into containers that is valuable, but either too big, heavy or dangerous to economically put on a plane.

          Now, far from every container will contain literal gold, but some will contain a fair bit of electronics, or other things of higher value.

          Cutting open a few tens of containers and unloading stuff of interest would be relatively trivial if no one is there to stop one from doing that.

          Holding people hostage is though likely more lucrative to a degree. But doesn’t change the fact that containers are not that hard to open. Considering how some thieves does it behind a rolling truck on a highway.

          1. You are assuming there is enough space around the container, there isn’t. The containers are loaded incredibly dense, with the doors facing inwards to the stacks. The gap between stacks is incredibly small, far too small for a human to fit in between them, let alone operate a bolt cutter and get the contents out. Placing them so close increases the stacks wind resistance, preventing containers from being ripped off the side; to increase the number or containers that can be carried in a given footprint; and to prevent the doors from being opened and the contents being removed/modified/added (Either intentionally or accidentally).

            If you want something out of a container, you either have to unload at a port or you are going to be there for months with a cutting torch hoping to get at something worth while (Spoiler: You won’t. The valuable cargo is loaded into the center towards the bottom of the stacks).

          2. Stellan.
            Having spent some time googling pictures of various container ships, both large and small. Almost non followed the spacing nor layout you proposed.

            All of them had fairly large gaps of a good couple of feet. (easily enough to open the doors)

            20 foot containers were however spaced sufficiently tightly for entry to be hard, but the vast majority of containers are 40 feet long.

            The only other time space weren’t existing in plenty were when the ship also carries containers above 40 feet. And this is part of the reason why the gaps exist. But another more important reason is to be able to secure the containers from falling off the ship.

            However, I am not against spacing the containers tightly, door against door. It would be a fairly effective method of preventing theft. Though, securing the containers is going to be a pain. And handling containers above 40 feet in length is suddenly a no go as well.

          3. None of this matters. With thousands of containers on a ship, the trouble it would take to dig through to something you can easily sell would make actually stealing the cargo impractical. Which is why they don’t do that now. Easier to hold the ship and crew for ransom.

            But removing the crew wouldn’t fix this. The ship and its cargo can still be kept hostage, with, I don’t know, the threat of blowing a few holes through the bottom of it, maybe. But every day that ship is delayed is big money lost, so it’s just a matter of picking a ransom point that they will pay, that is still worth your while. Basic pirate business.

      3. Well, insurance companies payout when a human mindlessly rams a container ship into another ship, boat, or port. If you pay enough, they will insurer anything.

        Also, most likely that the ship’s operator would use local pilots, as do most human controller large ships, to bring the ship into port.

        Pirates! Without any crew to take hostage (which is the usual MO), they don’t have much to bargain with. Most current type of pirates would likely not be equipped to take manual control (requiring either remote unlock or some key). So the vessel can keep sailing and deliver the pirates to the appropriate authorities. In the event the pirates did get manual control, the lack of hostages makes retaking by force an option.

        Either way, the shipping company saves money…

        Although it might bring around some new types of pirates, that can take ships without being anywhere near them.

        1. Huh. So how does the autopilot know when to haul your pirate ass to the proper authorities? Also, just ask the guy who sells you the ATM jacking devices, if they also have the latest container ship hacking device.

          1. It doesn’t have to, which ever port it is destined for will have authorities capable of detaining criminals. I don’t realistically see the pirates staying aboard once they find no crew and fail to re-route the ship’s course.

            Are their a lots of “ATM jacking” device makers in Somalia? Also, side note, it’s not the ATM getting “jacked”, it’s the user of the ATM that is getting their info jacked. This is much more technically easier than attacking the ATM itself. And I don’t see how that technique translates to a container ship – it’s not like people come up to with and magnetic card to remove their shipping containers.

          2. I thought my point was pretty simple and did not need further explanation. There are ATM jacking machines (i.e., machines that read and store/broadcast card information, again self explanatory) because there is a market for stealing credit card info. So if hijacking uncrewed container ships requires hacking their computers, the devices needed to do so will appear. Clear enough?

          3. Ok, your point was not so clear, but I agree with that, and also suggested similar:

            “Although it might bring around some new types of pirates, that can take ships without being anywhere near them.”

  3. All in all, it is difficult. Easiest path would be to look at the money. As usual, not easy because who lets you look into the books..

    [1] has a number from 2011 for a 14 kTEU-ship: 33 Mio. $ fixed cost incl. capital costs per year. Employment cost are at 4 Mio. $. In a general view (see [2]), vessel costs will decrease by TEU but totally go up, crewing costs are almost a constant.

    Harbour costs are a big unknown. Some companies own some harbors, some have long running contracts, depending on region and whatever. This means route changes and switching harbors could change costs dramatically.

    Voyage costs are more or less depending on fuel costs (see [2]), Consumption can be anything from 150 t to about 350 t bunker oil per day depending on speed (surprise, low is less), Very low sulphur fuel oils (VLSFO) prices go up and down like my blood pressure, currently rising. Ballpark numbers (see [3]) $541.00 per ton (ok, m^3) with a spread of $113.00. Lets assume 600$ so we are at 600*300=180.000 per day or 5.4 Mio $ for a 30 day journey (that is a little less for Shanghai Hamburg).

    So, with all that said, what does it help to remove all crew and save 4 Mio $ and add all sort of problems in case of failures, going in/out harbor and not getting basic maintenance? Looks like self driving cars to me: it might work most of the time, but in lots of cases it simply does not work without.




  4. “not getting basic maintenance” with no crew there is almost nothing to maintain, no toilets, no kitchens, no HVAC, no running water, no Netflix, no furniture, no medical facilities, no floors to mop, no light bulbs to replace. Just some big piles of containers.

    I think we humans sort of understand the concept of “routine maintenance”, we do not pay our mechanics to sit in the back seat when we drive to the grocery store.

    1. There is a hell of a lot of stuff that needs to be done a ship that isn’t to support the people aboard. On a typical cargo ship, about half the crew is machinists maintaining the engines, the rest are technicians maintaining things like the radar and sonar, watching out for obstacles, responding to requests for assistance, making weather reports for the aid of other ships, etc.

      All the things needed to make the ship comfortable for humans is going to be what is called “Collateral duties”, I.E., additional assignments each crew member undertakes in addition to their normal job like cleaning the head, cooking food, providing emergency medical treatment, watching for obstacles, operating radios, painting bulkheads, greasing pipes and connectors, inspection of critical systems, etc.

    2. @ X
      You can’t compare that. Scale make everything different. Your car fuel tank can supply cargo vessel engine for about one minute operation (they can burn 100T of fuel per day!). A car does not have that much auxiliaries like: fresh water generators (you need that for cooling not for potable water), marine growth protection, impressed current cathodic protection, fuel purifier, bilge system etc. Than comes aggressive environment due to sea water so you must inspect and check anodes installed all over the place because once they are consumed they will not protect your pipes. Oil spill is a great environment and fire hazard so you also need a team that will prevent it and once they spot it they can react accordingly (personnel on board is also emergency team for fire and environmental incidents). Also a car does not run 24/7 for weeks or even months. We still haven’t reached electric power generation/distribution, cargo supervision and navigation issues.

      We don’t care about car maintenance because cost of failure or even damage is small – we still have public transport, car rental, taxis and friends who will help even if you are in another city but in worst case scenario new car can be bought even next day. A repair can be done without causing big issues. Ballast system failure can result in cargo loss, vessel loss and environment damage (100T of fuel per day – how big are tanks for such consumer?).

    1. Ina perfect world, yes. But raw materials aren’t evenly distributed, so you either have to ship in the raw materials to where they’d be manufactured, or manufacture closer and ship the finished products.

      For example, North America and Europe lack any significant source of a lot of materials, it would be impossible to manufacture semiconductors locally without shipping at least the raw materials in from overseas since those continents lack tantalite or coltan sources.

      The uneven distribution of resources is one of the reasons that China is a manufacturing powerhouse, the nation is surrounded by rich veins of raw materials and they can get those at half the cost of what a nation like the US or Germany could.

    1. My private notebook always went into full riot mode when a crew members usb stick was inserted… each and every was full with all the viruses you could think of.

      Good practice was to limit it for ulltra important stuff only or force the air way.

      OTOH, for the viruses it must have been a quite lonely life. Not much to infect, important devices do not expose much internals. Mostly. I didn’t do any research on anything. (I should have…)

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