In terms of transportation, we hear a lot about the future of land-based travel, with self-driving cars a hot topic for discussion. We also hear plenty about what’s going in in the skies, with developments in airplanes and even space travel capturing the attention of many.

Despite around 90% of the world’s goods being transported by sea, there is far less attention being paid to maritime transportation. Shipping, however, is hugely significant in the global economy, and many companies are exploring how to improve this mode of transport for the future.

Existing problems within the shipping industry

As consumers, it’s easy to underestimate the sheer size of the maritime industry, because it’s something that we just don’t see. Although shipping might go under the radar for a lot of people, this form of transportation is a huge industry, and one that faces a number of issues.

Due to the scale of the maritime industry, shipping is a major contributor of carbon emissions. With around 90,000 marine vessels responsible for transporting the world’s goods across the ocean, the shipping industry is responsible for three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. While this may not sound like a lot, it’s an amount comparable to a major nation, with only five countries emitting more CO2 than the world’s shipping fleet.

Shipping can also be unsafe for crew members, who have to deal with rough conditions and machine failures that make their jobs amongst the most dangerous in the world. The maritime industry also faces problems associated with reliability and efficiency, with issues related to cargo liability fairly common due to the conditions at sea.

Autonomous shipping

The approach many companies are taking to address these issues is through the development of autonomous shipping, which will utilise automation to improve the efficiency, reliability, safety and sustainability of the maritime industry.

There are various companies, from Rolls Royce to a range of smaller startups, developing autonomous shipping solutions. In the short-term, the developments will allow ships to deal with weather and currents more efficiently, leading to fuel savings and fewer emissions.

Longer-term, there are various projects being developed that could revolutionise the industry. A number of companies are exploring ships that use alternative fuel sources such as solar and wind, which could massively reduce existing levels of CO2 emissions.

One such company is Massterly, a new Norwegian venture between two existing companies, who are working towards creating the first zero-emissions container ship. The vessel, which would be fully electric and completely autonomous, will use automated mooring and sailing, alongside navigation sensors and communication. The company aim for this revolutionary ship to be in use by 2020.

As with the broader increase in robotics and automation across industries, there is a concern about how this technology might affect human labour leading to potential job losses. Despite this potential issue, however, autonomous ships have the potential to change the maritime industry for the better.

Further Reading and References

International Shipping, Globalization in Crisis, Vision Project
Shipping Pollution, Oceana
Why the future of shipping is looking green and autonomous, World Economic Forum

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