How Close are We to Having Autonomous Ships?

autonomous ships

We all know smart cars that self-drive are making big headlines, though not in the best way just yet. There’s a long road ahead before people trust their cars to do the work. You may even have heard of autonomous flight, but what about ships? As the IoT gets more prominent everyday technology continues to grow by leaps and bounds, overtaking more industries. AI or Artificial Intelligence is getting more prevalent, too, and that’s where autonomous vehicles are getting their brains. What’s going on in the industry? We looked into it, and you’ll be surprised by what we dug up.

How close are we to having autonomous ships? They exist now. The first fully autonomous ferry debuted last year. Rolls-Royce partnered with Finlands Finferry to create this marvel of technology. It sailed out of the dock on December third of 2018. Though the waterways are still a long haul from going pilot-free, they do plan to use this ship on a route that’s uncrowded in an area with low traffic. Testing the waters quite literally for their new technology is exciting news. Rolls-Royce isn’t the only company testing autonomous ships. DARPA and other military applications are being explored among many others.

Why Do We Need Self-Sailing Ships

Who needs a ship that can sail itself? It certainly seems like it would take the fun out of things, but the fun has nothing to do with it. Sailing enthusiasts have nothing to fear from the budding AI shipping industry. In fact, it’s the other way around. Any new technology is bound to have some hangups along the road to greatness. After all, the first computers took up entire rooms and could barely do basic math, but things have certainly come a long way. Avoiding the pitfalls of humanity while still serving its needs is precisely why we invent technology. Computers may be often used to troll strangers and play mindless games, but they also offer the entire world’s wisdom, with translations to and from any language. The data they back up and save no longer needs to be memorized when it can be accessed in a moment. This innovation allows us to reach every higher and travel further without losing precious time.


Cargo vessels, especially those with dangerous or precious cargo, could benefit from these new innovations. As long as the routes are clear, a ship that steers itself isn’t subject to human error. Think of it as a calculator. Unless you’re effectively the Rainman of ship steering there’s no reason why an AI brain won’t eclipse the human element in time. Working faster than a human mind and body is capable of is not s a downside. Guaranteed calculations and adjustments are not a bad sign. They’re simply part of progress. Allowing faster reactions and fewer mistakes to drive the global shipping economy should actually see a decrease in shipping accidents, late deliveries, and human errors. An AI will never fall asleep at the wheel, nor will it forget to do safety checks.


The military powers of the world will also see a huge benefit. Just as they have with unmanned drones, the ability to go crewless will save human lives. We may not like to think about the savagery of war, but it happens nonetheless. With ships and even submarines that can cruise along to their destinations without fail and without losing vital soldiers in an attack, the future of fighting is looking less gory instead of more so.


A ship is essentially unbribable. A hacker will have to be physically present if the vessel in question isn’t transmitting or receiving data. Ships don’t have human needs, and so they can’t be negotiated with or blackmailed. No one will have to worry about a well-programmed limited AI deciding to make an extra stop for some personal reason, or agreeing to divert from its course for cash.

The Problems

Good technology can save lives, but it’s not cheap or easy to get. Cost alone makes much of new tech expense-prohibitive. Anyone who recalls a time when a simple CD player cost hundreds of dollars can tell you this is bound to change for the better. However, in the meantime, someone has to go first. It’s the pioneers who stick their necks out like Finferry who end up eating the costs. Early adopters of technology always pay a high price to be on the cutting edge. The price of dominating a new industry is inventing it and paying for it along the way.

Innovation is a process. To find the hidden flaws in any system, you have first to create it and then test it exhaustively. The reality of technology is that it is an ever-evolving creative process, not unlike humankind itself. Unfortunately, we’re also capable of innovating ourselves out of jobs faster than we can create technology to make it unnecessary to work. The maritime industries will be among the hardest hit when it comes to AI job displacement.

The other issue with AI-run ships is something we’ve already touched on. Cybersecurity is not only essential, but it has to be practically flawless in order to keep valuable cargo safe. The idea that some wily hacker could climb aboard with a laptop and take over isn’t too far from the heart of the issue. We have to wonder if perhaps some AI ships won’t have a crew after all. They won’t exist to steer and pilot, but rather to protect their virtual pilot with every fiber of their beings. It’s a strange thought that someday security on ships might exist to protect a computer brain instead of the cargo or passengers.

Final Thoughts

Technology is always fascinating to us. As soon as we dream up a concept, someone somewhere is ready to start creating it. That’s one of the beautiful things about humanity. As we stand poised in the early part of the new era, more and more of us are coming to terms with technology in every aspect of our lives. From your door locks to your car and soon your vacation cruise ships, everything is going digital. There has never been a better or more frightening time to be alive in the tech sector. As we dive the depths of the sea with unmanned craft and throw ourselves out to the stars, the universe opens up in new ways for us. Are you inspired, or are you feeling a little behind the times? Leave a comment below and let us know whether you’re ready to get on a ship with no captain.

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