Automatic water transport will come, but when?

Maritime transport has developed considerably over the last twenty years with advances in information technology. With the development of satellite technologies and also new radio frequency-based data transmission systems, data transmission between the ship and the coast is now much faster, more efficient and cheaper than it was a few decades ago. In addition, the price of sensors that monitor the operation of various devices and machines has decreased. This has opened up a whole new world with the digitalisation of maritime transport and also with automation.

Constantly updated weather and environmental information, navigation information, increased automation and the use of remote control on ships facilitate work on the ship’s bridge and, when used correctly, increase both efficiency and, in particular, safety. We can look at maritime automation from the following perspectives:

  • Technologies that facilitate navigation, such as maps, weather and ice data.
  • Remote monitoring of ship’s equipment and machinery.
  • Different reporting, e.g. reporting fuel consumption to shore.
  • Development of ports, including automatic mooring and information flow when a ship arrives in a port or needs pilotage, for example. This information can then be utilized in land transportation planning.
  • Remote control or remote monitoring of control from countries.
  • Automatic driving.

Of particular interest are smart fairways, where more advanced ships receive their navigation information electronically. Intelligent fairways also enable remote pilotage, where pilots would not have to transfer to ships in person, but it would be possible to give instructions from land. Development work has progressed at a rapid pace, and remote piloting will be tested this year on both the Swedish and Finnish fariways.

Perhaps the most important issue in the future of automatic ships is safety. Safety is key to the development and testing of unmanned ships and, above all, to the adoption of new practices. It is to be expected that automatic vessels will first be introduced in national waters licensed by the national authorities, and only later, perhaps even decades from now, will automatic vessels be approved by the IMO and classification societies in international waters.

We will see automated vessels first with very short and safe connections, such as river crossings or as part of a closed logistics chain. These may have less other traffic and, for example, less weather and wave effects, and safety may initially be ensured, for example, by having a pilot on board just for in case needed. Such a single transport chain automatic connection is designed for YARA fertilizer transport, see

Plans for automatic ocean transportation have not yet been presented. While global attention in waterborne transport has shifted to traffic automation, major changes are underway in transforming waterborne transport into carbon neutral. More on that a little later.

Photo by Vesa Laitinen, Helsinki Material Bank

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