Auronomous Shipping - DEMCON - Rotterdam Maritime Capital of Europe Credit: DEMCON unmanned systems

Autonomous Shipping.

On course for the next generation of maritime.

Autonomous shipping is the safe passage and navigation of a vessel, in addition to the monitoring and operation of its on-board systems. Linked to the rapidly increasing digitisation throughout the maritime industry, it is a technology that is still very much in its early stages, with Rotterdam leading the way.

Why go Autonomous?

Autonomous shipping is based on a foundation of big data and will increasingly use AI and machine learning to develop further. These tools will yield numerous benefits, like more effective vessel scheduling and routing. Together with reduced crew costs, this will result in lower operating costs. This is particularly relevant to maritime sectors experiencing challenges in finding skilled personnel. In addition, autonomous shipping will bring about safer and more sustainable operations. For example, human operator error is removed, and fuel consumption can be decreased.

Most notably, these benefits are applicable throughout the entire maritime industry; autonomous technology is already making its mark in offshore, naval, subsea, shortsea shipping, inland shipping, ferries, dredging, and harbour operations. As maritime capital of Europe, Rotterdam is home to all these branches of the maritime industry.

Learn more about Rotterdam Maritime Capital of Europe
Learn more about the innovation ecosystem in the maritime capital of Europe.

Providing a nurturing environment for autonomous shipping

The technology behind autonomous shipping is developing at a rapid-fire pace. In response to this, Rotterdam has created an environment that enables and supports collaboration between established parties as well as nurturing innovative start-up companies. This includes SMASH!, the Netherlands Forum for Smart Shipping, which supports cooperation between maritime companies, government, and knowledge institutions located in Rotterdam.

Research and testing facility MARIN and the Researchlab Autonomous Shipping at the TU Delft.

Learn more about the innovation ecosystem

Financing is also crucial in making autonomous shipping a reality. Rotterdam is home to a variety of investment opportunities that sustain fundamental and practical research into autonomous shipping.

Rotterdam is proud to be associated with multiple examples of ground-breaking research milestones such as the collaboration between KOTUG, Rotortug, and tech company Captain AI, which operated a tugboat located in the port of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, remotely from Marseille, France. Or Shipping Technology’s installation and successful testing of semi-autonomous technology on board the 135-metre long inland shipping vessel Factofour. What about Seafar’s opening of a second control centre at the RDM Campus, from where it operates unmanned and crew-reduced vessels remotely?

Demcon Unmanned Systems is another example, having delivered fully-electric autonomous USVs (unmanned survey vessels) to carry out hydrographic survey operations in hard-to-reach bodies of water for Van Oord. Or the RPA 3, the Port of Rotterdam’s patrol vessel, equipped with cameras, measurement equipment and sensors. Also known as the ‘Floating Lab’, RPA 3 represents how the Port of Rotterdam is giving external partners the opportunity to test sensors, algorithms and/or other equipment in a simple, safe and efficient way.

Tackling future obstacles

The pilot projects taking place in and around Rotterdam are pushing the boundaries of autonomous technologies in the maritime sector. As such, Rotterdam is proving itself as an initiator of innovation. These projects are also exposing some of the key challenges that still need to be overcome in order to take autonomous shipping to the next step.

An autonomous ship has to be a safe ship. Whatever happens, it must stay afloat and not cause damage to third parties or the environment.

Legal issues
Insurance, risk assessment, responsibility and accountability: these are perhaps the most challenging obstacles related to autonomous shipping. Answering the question of ‘who is responsible if something goes wrong?’ is a critical point.

Data exchange at sea is more complex than on shore (where there is WIFI and a mobile data network). Cyber security is another significant aspect.

International standards
The maritime industry is intrinsically international. Therefore, information needs internationally defined standards. Metres or inches? GMT or CET? This would need agreement from the 174 members of the International Maritime Organization.

Autonomous shipping will undoubtedly play a major role in the future of the maritime industry. Rotterdam is ready and more than able to collaborate with partners to facilitate this change and tackle these challenges. We are always looking for new partnerships, whether that is companies, knowledge institutes or government departments. Are you interested in working with us? Feel free to contact us!