23 Oct 2017

Shipping's future on the horizon

9:18 pm on 23 October 2017

You've heard of self-driving cars, driverless trucks, and airliners that fly on auto-pilot - how about autonomous ships?

An artist's impression of an autonomous ship.

An artist's impression of an autonomous ship. Photo: Rolls Royce Marine

New Zealand interest in the technology - which could allow ships to sail with no one, or just a handful of people, on board - is growing along with international developments.

The world's first autonomous container ship, built by shipping and aerospace company Kongsberg, will carry fertiliser from next year along coastal routes in Norway, while Rolls Royce Marine has signed a deal with Google to help with the technology for piloting autonomous ships.

But these vessels won't be modern day ghost ships, a mournful echo of the Marie Celeste.

An artist's impression of an autonomous ship. Rolls Royce Marine has signed a deal with Google to help guide autonomous ships.

Rolls Royce Marine has signed a deal with Google to help with the technology for autonomous ships. Photo: Rolls Royce Marine

New Zealand Maritime School industry training manager Kees Buckens said they would be state of the art vessels with sophisticated methods of avoiding a collision.

They would use radar and GPS, as well as new systems linked into infrared cameras that scan the water around the vessel, he said.

"These would give a very clear picture of anything that is on the water from a small log or boat to large ships," he said.

This information would enable ships to take evasive action to avoid any obstacle.

Such vessels would be very safe, since 80 percent of marine accidents were caused by human error, Mr Buckens said.

While one or two people might be needed to keep an eye on the computers, they would not necessarily be on the vessel, but could be in an office thousands of kilometres away.

Kongsberg chief executive Geir Håøy said the company had been working on autonomy for decades.

New Zealand Shipping Federation spokesperson Annabel Young said the message from a recent Auckland seminar on the future of shipping was that there would be no "big bang" of autonomy.

"There will be an incremental development where people work out which routes and which type of cargo is best suited to an autonomous vessel.

"Some will be more suited than others."

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