The Unmanned Shipping Industry: Fiction or Future?

The way we move goods is about to be changed forever. The world’s first automated container ship is currently being developed in Norway and is planned to be fully automated by 2020. But what does that mean for the maritime profession? Will it still be a stable career option? Or will manpower be replaced by machine power?

The benefits of autonomous shipping

Autonomous ships were first proposed in the 1970’s in Rolf Schonknecht’s book, “Ships and Shipping of Tomorrow.” The main benefit of automation is that by removing the need for an onboard crew, operating expenses can be reduced and cargo capacity can be increased. While this may work in theory, there are several key roadblocks in practice.

Why shipping still needs a human touch


From bad weather to obstacles to pirates, deep-sea vessels are exposed to a vast array of risks. While an onshore crew would be able to navigate some of them remotely, it’s unknown whether they could navigate all of them. In addition, if any accidents do occur, they will be far more severe without an onboard crew to intervene.

Until ships are independent of external control, they cannot be autonomous. I hope I am wrong so that there are no more worries on seafarer shortage.”

– Captain Cheong Kwee Thiam, senior lecturer at the Singapore Maritime Academy (SMA)

Technological limitations

A research project conducted in 2012 and funded by the European Union found that while there was potential for unmanned deep sea vessels, satellite restrictions and high communication costs could make the operations uneconomical.

High maintenance costs

The majority of a ship’s maintenance is conducted by a crew at sea rather than at berth. And there’s a good reason for this: economics.

A cargo ship makes money when it is sailing, not a berth. The more time allowed for sailing, the lower fuel consumption. If we remove the maintenance crew and schedule all the work to be done at berth, the income potential of the vessel is drastically reduced.”

– Per Brinchmann, Vice President Technical at Wilhelmsen ASA

Remote pilots

Even if unmanned ships become more of the norm, Mr Lim Tau Kok, a veteran in the maritime industry, argues that humans will still play an integral role in controlling and watching over them.

People ask me, are unmanned ships going to be a reality? My answer is yes and no. It may be unmanned on board, but people still need to control it from somewhere. It is the same with military drones, the drone is unmanned but you still have a team controlling and manning it from the home base.”

– Lim Tau Kok, advisor to the Wavelink Maritime Institute (WMI)

How automation will propel the maritime industry forward

Rather than rendering crews obsolete, automation will improve how deep-sea vessels operate, resulting in a safer, more efficient and effective work environment. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has also committed another S$100 million to help the industry embrace new technologies and an integral part of this will be re-skilling and re-tooling the workforce. So while automation technology will continue to develop, the seafarer of the future will simply adapt to it to harness the power of both man and machine.

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