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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

Opinion: Will China be the first to build an unmanned ship?

Wed 02 Aug 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

Opinion: Will China be the first to build an unmanned ship?
China can design an unmanned dry cargo ship that could be classed by ABS (credit: archy13Shutterstock)

China can be considered ahead of the pack in the race to build the first unmanned cargo ship following the formation of an alliance that will develop this technology. The construction of the first autonomous or remotely controlled dry cargo ship has perhaps been accelerated by the introduction of class society ABS to the alliance.

China Classification Society (CCS) and HNA Technology Logistics Group launched the Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance in China at then end of June. ABS announced it was part of this alliance last week. The alliance wants to be a pioneer in the adaptation of technology that enables the building and operation of ships without crew on board. It intends to deliver the first unmanned cargo ship in 2021.

This is the latest trend in shipping technology that shipyards think will lead to fresh vessel orders and equipment manufacturers want to progress to increase their contract backlogs. It is yet to be seen if shipowners are seriously considering ordering unmanned ships, but if the technology is ready, then eventually some will order vessels with these capabilities from shipyards.

China wants to be the place that owners turn to for ordering these unmanned ships. It has the shipyard capacity, the manpower for constructing these ships at cost-effective prices and the energy to drive the trend forward.

Whether it has the expertise and the technical capabilities for the more complex areas of enabling the remote control of ships from shore-based centres, or even autonomous vessel operations is another question. But this can be brought into a project through manufacturers that have invested in these technologies, such as Rolls-Royce and Wärtsilä, which are part of the alliance.

The alliance includes shipbuilder Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding, which puts this yard at an advantage in terms of gaining unmanned ship newbuilding orders. It also includes other industry experts such as the China Ship Research & Development Institute, Shanghai Marine Diesel Engine Research Institute and Maric, the Marine Design & Research Institute of China.

ABS said last week that the alliance will design advanced autonomous shipping. It said the designs will integrate features of independent decision-making, autonomous navigation, environmental perception and remote control.

ABS president of the China division Eric Kleess said that digitisation and improved levels of ship connectivity enable the maritime industry to consider unmanned ships. “In the coming years, we will see significant changes in the way ships are designed and built, with a strong drive to develop autonomous vessels, especially in China,” he said. 

Therefore, we can consider China has taken a forward step into the design, engineering and construction of unmanned cargo ships. It may not become the first to test out the technology though as there are advanced plans in Scandinavia for unmanned vessels. However, China will be well positioned to build the first fleet of commercial unmanned cargo ships.

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