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At Maersk, Autonomy Isn't the Next Big Thing

At Maersk, Autonomy Isn't the Next Big Thing

The idea of vessel autonomy is a longstanding source of buzz in shipping circles, and it is gradually becoming a reality. Construction should begin on the first self-driving container feeder sometime this year. But at Maersk Line, the world's biggest ocean carrier, autonomous shipping is met with a shrug.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Maersk CEO Soren Skou said that his firm already uses small crews on its giant boxships, and he doesn't see much advantage in taking the last few people off the vessel. Even if there were a commercial reason to do so and the technology were available, "I don’t expect we will be allowed to sail around with 400-meter long container ships, weighing 200,000 tonnes without any human beings on board,” he said. “I don’t think it will be a driver of efficiency, not in my time.”

Others aren't so sure. Rolls-Royce Marine has put considerable resources into researching and promoting merchant vessel autonomy, as have many other leading maritime technology firms, and several governments have designated specific test areas where manufacturers can trial their crew-free vessel prototypes. Norway has three such areas - Horten, Trondheimsfjord and Storfjorden - and China designated its own 300-square-mile test region off Zhuhai earlier this month.

One of the first commercial autonomous vessels will likely be a containership, albeit a small one. The YARA Birkeland, an all-electric, 120 TEU feeder, will run between three ports in southern Norway. All are within about 30 nm of each other and all within nation's territorial seas. The shipyard for the Birkeland's construction should be selected within the first quarter of this year and delivery is expected in 2019, with fully autonomous operation by 2020.