Autonomous Cargo Ships Are on The Horizon, But Are The Ports Ready?

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Over the past several years, various cargo ship manufacturers have announced plans or designs for autonomous ships. Some have even become a reality. Maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) are the future of ocean shipping. Many still wonder, though, how soon these ships will go into widespread use, reports Global Trade.

Are autonomous cargo ships a reality?

Autonomous cargo ships are still in their infancy, but they are no longer a concept or hypothetical. The technology exists and it’s part of a wave of change coming to the supply chain. Even advanced port technology is in development for these ships.

Perhaps the most exciting development in recent years is Vard’s Yara Birkeland. Not only is this ship the world’s first zero-emissions cargo ship, but it is also the world’s first autonomous cargo ship. It was delivered in Q4 2020 and began testing soon thereafter.

Vard’s next-gen cargo ship has not become the new industry standard in the years since, but it is leading the way in terms of MASS technology. It’s only a matter of time before more ships like the Yara Birkeland are completed.

So, autonomous cargo ships are a reality, and one that has already arrived. The technology exists and the world seems excited about it. Of course, there is still a lot that needs to be accounted for as the supply chain moves toward autonomous shipping and ports.

Role of ports

Ports around the world are clearly facing a lot of change and challenges already in the 2020s. The COVID-19 pandemic and the supply chain crisis have completely changed the game. Innovation and evolution are no longer a question of “if” but “when.”

There are a few factors influencing the move toward autonomous shipping, which are also closely tied to the evolution of ports for these next-gen ships. For instance, sustainability and climate initiatives have become major priorities around the world. This trend isn’t exclusive to the supply chain, either. Manufacturing is seeing the rise of lean manufacturing practices that aim to improve efficiency and reduce waste. Consumers are increasingly demanding more sustainable packaging for goods and options for greener shipping that are carbon neutral.

Climate change is even affecting where populations around the world are concentrated. An estimated 140 million people are expected to become “climate migrants” in the years ahead, with factors such as water scarcity and hostile weather conditions shifting where people can and can’t safely live.

All of this has a major impact on the supply chain. There is a global need for a greener supply chain, including aboard cargo ships and at ports. Automation can help make that happen by optimizing the way cargo ships operate, making them as energy efficient as possible. Given the climate factors mentioned above, it’s no surprise that the shift toward MASS is coinciding with a shift toward electric cargo ships, as with the Yara Birkeland.

Additionally, as of Q1 2022, supply chain labor shortages are still a problem at ports, at warehouses, at sea, and in trucks. As the world moves more and more toward e-commerce, demand for goods shipped overseas is only going to grow. So, there is a clear need for solutions to alleviate strain at ports. Automation is an obvious avenue to pursue.

Gearing up for automation

There are already groups working to prepare ports for automation. In 2018, a team of organizations in Japan announced a major collaboration to develop autonomous berthing technology. “Auto-berthing” would allow ships to be unloaded fully autonomously, which could help ports unload ships faster and with fewer employees needed.

That same year, the Port of Caofeidian in China ran an innovative trial program for driverless tractor-trailers using self-driving trucks from TuSimple. In the years since this program, TuSimple’s autonomous truck technology has advanced even further. In fact, in Q4 2021, a TuSimple self-driving truck completed the first fully driverless test on a public road.

Automation beyond cargo ships themselves will be crucial for adapting ports and getting the most value possible out of MASS. After all, even if ships can get to ports faster, it won’t really make a difference if ports are still backed up anyway. So, it’s good news for ports that trucks are approaching full self-driving capabilities. With a combination of auto-berthing and efficient self-driving trucks to haul cargo away, ports could potentially see incredible growth in the future.

Long term change for ocean freight

So, are ports themselves prepared for the MASS future? Today, port congestion overall still poses a serious hurdle for autonomous cargo ships. As mentioned above, to experience the full benefits of MASS, ports will need to adapt and embrace automation.

On a basic level, ports will need to be able to work with cargo ships that have no crew on board. They will need to communicate and coordinate with ships that are being helmed by algorithms.

On a larger scale, it is worth considering new technologies such as autonomous weather reporting to help guide autonomous ships into ports. This is one of the innovations that the Port of Rotterdam is developing to prepare for MASS. Ports will also need intelligent logistics and communications networks to coordinate the movement of docks full of autonomous ships. Some form of standardization will likely be key to ensuring all ports can effectively communicate with tomorrow’s autonomous ships.

In 2020, several nations around the world—including China but not the U.S.—came together to prepare ports for MASS. The organization, known as MASSPorts, has a dedicated goal of getting ports all over the globe ready for this emerging technology. Organizations such as this will be instrumental in getting MASS rolling and making it a successful mainstream technology.

Looking toward the long-term future, in the next 10 to 20 years, ports will likely experience a large-scale shift toward full automation. They will need a new niche of employees who have technical expertise and an understanding of autonomous systems. The traffic flow and roadways around ports will need to be friendly to autonomous vehicles like self-driving trucks. Ports themselves will need to scale up connectivity so they can communicate effectively with zero-crew cargo ships.

Green and autonomous shipping

The supply chain is in the midst of an era of innovation, change, and growth. While challenges do persist, advances in automation offer a light at the end of the tunnel. Autonomous cargo ship technology is well on its way, but ports will need to adapt and gear up to reap the benefits of MASS.

On the other side of all this change, the supply chain could end up being more efficient, more technologically advanced, and more environmentally friendly.

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Source: Global Trade

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