It looks like China might have a head start in the autonomous ship race. According to the official newspaper of the Ministry of Science and Technology, construction of a trial site for autonomous ships has started on the sea in Zhuhai in southern China. This site is set to be the largest in the world for autonomous ship trials. While China is getting ready to finish the site by the end of the year, autonomous ships have been a subject of interest for a while now.
The Yara Birkeland, the first all-electric autonomous ship, was the brainchild of Yara International and Kongsberg in Norway. The ship, initially manned, should move to fully remote operation by 2020. It is completely electric and powered by batteries charged from the shore while the vessel is moored. It is predicted to cut shipping costs significantly due to its lack of crew and consequent need of space to accommodate them.
The technology for remotely-operated and autonomous ships exists, and some manufacturers like Rolls-Royce are working in this direction. Last September they announced an autonomous ship able to carry 700 tons with an autonomy of 100 days. The first commercial fleet could be launched as soon as 2020.
Read more about autonomous vessels in our special issue #8: