China ranks as the world’s third largest marine shipping country with a chance to become the world’s most dominant one by 2030. Even as commodity shipments have slipped with the slowdown in Chinese economic growth, container traffic from China to Europe and the U.S. west coast were picking up in 2016, market research firm IHS itime & Trade says.
According to news reports and the views of analysts, someday you might not see any captains. Instead, remote-controlled ghost ships would send containers around the world and even work for the Chinese navy.
That’s because China is rigorously grooming an autonomous fleet, something like giant drones of the sea. This year it started building a huge “test field” for autonomous ships off the South China Sea coast of Guangdong province, a report says. The 771.6-square-kilometer Wanshan Marine Test Field, hailed as a first of its kind in Asia, was set up to become the world’s largest field anywhere over the next three to five years, it adds.
The field will allow testing of technology that lets a captain-less ship steer and avoid obstacles, the Chinese news website China.org.cn said in February. Advances from the test site will also set standards for the industry nationwide, a state-run China Daily online said in February.
Autonomous ships can save money otherwise spent to hire captains and support people, a report by the Technical University of Denmark says. In any country, it’s industry that usually pushes for this technology, says Robert Murrett, a public administration and international affairs professor at Syracuse University in the United States.
In China, a logistics firm under the Hainan province-based conglomerate HNA Group has set up an unmanned cargo ship “development alliance” to advance autonomous shipping, World Maritime News says. China’s state-owned marine freight line Cosco Shipping in November received its first ship equipped with technology for remote or autonomous monitoring, the report says.
A team from China showed the world’s fastest unmanned ship, the Tianxing-1, in December at the China Marine Economy Expo near the Chinese test site, China Daily says. The 12.2-meter-long vessel can move up to 93 kph and displace 7.5 metric tons.
Autonomous ship technology can quickly move from one use to another, including a country’s navy, Murrett says. The U.S. Navy in 2016 christened its autonomous ship, the Sea Hunter as part of an anti-submarine program. China isn’t saying it would pass its autonomous technology from the marine test site to the People’s Liberation Army’s naval unit, but maritime and aerospace discoveries in the country often cross the civilian-military line.
The test field sits in the vast South China Sea, site of a maritime sovereignty dispute involving Beijing and four Southeast Asian governments. China had irked other claimants by landfilling disputed islets for military use before tempering that expansion last year. Now other countries may worry about China’s technological leads over the waterway prized for fish and fossil fuels.
Zhuhai-based ship developer Yunzhou-Tech is working on some of the autonomous ships, says Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate, at the Stimson Center think tank in the United States. In 2016 it started working with a Chinese government technology center on a joint lab set up to perfect ships for the South China Sea ships, Sun notes.
“It is suspected that China will use these vessels to patrol the maritime areas under and beyond its control,” Sun says.
Europe in the lead
China is just catching up for now, however, the world’s first autonomous ship will set sail in Norway this year to make deliveries between towns along the Scandinavian country’s rugged coasts, the report says.
European developers are working on technology that would make captain-less ships common by 2030, as per an industrial news report. Maritime engineering firm MacGregor and engine maker Rolls-Royce signed a memorandum of understanding last year to explore ways which autonomous technology could help ship navigation and cargo systems on container ships, MacGregor’s Finland-based parent company Cargotec Corp. said in a statement.
All “high-tech” countries are trying to use autonomous shipping, Murrett says. “I wouldn’t want to single out China, because there are other countries,” he said. “They have a lot of competition.”
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