Crewless Ships and the Terrible Cassandra Principle

There have been many great leaps forward for shipping, and it seems we are at the jumping-off point once again. What does that mean for the swollen bell graph of companies, in which so many sit in the middle neither great nor poor, just existing? What will they do, and which way will they jump when it comes to technology? Will they listen to sense or false prophets?


The first-ever crewless electric cargo ship, the Yara Birkeland, is set to embark on its first voyage in Norwegian waters by the end of 2021. There have been several false dawns with the much-vaunted vessel. COVID slowed down the development, but it seems that finally the talking is done, and the ship is ready to do what it is designed to do, set sail.

At 80 meters long and 15 meters beam, the Birkeland is not exactly a giant, but the ship is set to make a very big splash indeed within the industry, if not off the slip-way. According to Yara, it’s capable of carrying 120 TEU containers. Which when compared to the current biggest box ship, the Ever Ace at 23, 992 TEU, shows that this tech experiment is still far from scaled up.

That said, innovation has to start somewhere. This is the little ship that will say we can finally embrace all the things which have been spoken so optimistically about for decades. There has been talk of electric ships for years, and the autonomous shipping debate has been around since the Seventies.

We have edged closer and closer, but like a technological chimaera, it has always seemed the closer we get it remains just out of reach. Which brings us to the prophecies of shipping’s technological dawn, and the troubling facts that keep getting in the way of fantasies.


Shipping is a cunning business, populated by crafty people, who work for wily operators and are pitted against artful and guileful competition in a business that requires clever, cunning, astuteness at its core. Put short, this is a very old business that has earned its chops the hard way.

I may have been captain on one of the last banana boats, but that doesn’t mean that I can have the technological wool pulled over my eyes, and most of my maritime peers seem to be equally shrewd. Why then, is the industry so susceptible to tech problems?

It seems astonishing, that so many great companies and whip-smart people struggle to either see the values of certain advances or get too easily convinced by snakeskin oil sellers. The prophets are ignored, and the false prophets lapped up.

That is the problem we find ourselves at — there is doubt and confusion, there are so many new rules and regulations to adhere to. There are fundamental problems like guessing which fuel to commit to, and so often that can lead to “progressional paralysis”. Shipping companies often do not know which way to alter course — so they remain on their track, come good or bad.


The late Seventies were a time of much innovative discussion, but little practical ability to deliver on the promises. Perhaps driven by the massive mainstream renaissance of science fiction, there was much talk about computerised ships. The force seemed strong…

This led to the concept of autonomous ships being introduced in the 1983 book “Ships and Shipping of Tomorrow” by Jurgen Lusch and Rolf Schonknecht. They discussed that in the future captains will perform their duties from an onshore office building and the vessels will be navigated with the use of computers. The book also looked at other possible developments in future shipping technology, including submarine tankers, hydrofoils, ground-effect vehicles, offshore loading stations, and artificial islands. So, some predictions were pretty on the money.

Perhaps prompted by the interest, and no doubt boosted by the growing computational power confidence predicted by Moore’s Law, one major project in the early 80s was the “Japanese Intelligent Ship Project”. This aimed at “bringing about intelligent ships that can function “without help from the crew” with automatic operation systems integrating marine and land sides involving elements such as shipping in high seas, port entrance, berthing, anchoring, and even cargo handling. The system would be linked through satellites.

In 1985, the US focused on a “Ships of the future” project too and the “Pilotage Expert System” was developed. This used intelligent reasoning systems but did not actually come to much. Back in Japan, by 1988, all of the ship systems were simulated on a computer. Then, well…nothing really.


This is the whole problem really — we get so far and then nothing. We get our hopes up, we get scared for jobs and careers, and then we wait, wait and wait again, while life and the realities of current shipping demand all the attention.

That is the curse of the tech Cassandra, cursed to utter true prophecies, but without a real-time frame. The future is always coming tomorrow. So, we just hear so many predictions, thoughts and extrapolations, and when it comes to shipping, and especially autonomous ships, it has just never really gained the traction to truly change the seascape.

Put starkly, autonomy has to deliver not only on its promises but the benefits have to outweigh the production costs. With one ship, that is too great a burden! The scale needs to be ramped up. The way the industry will get to understand and accept autonomous, or even uncrewed remotely controlled ships, is to work backwards from a decade hence. By working backwards, then we can anticipate the parameters, the problems and the fixes needed to alter course today to get us moving towards tomorrow.

The Yara Birkeland will sadly likely already be behind the curve when it finally gets to ploughing up and down the Norwegian coast with its hundred boxes. Even with its modular bridge removed it likely to stand more as a symbol and catalyst for change, rather than delivering the commercial payback required of all ships, at some point. Though, that said the fact that it will take 40,000 truck journeys off Norwegian roads is something to celebrate too…so that will have some value.


The IMO has recently completed a regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS), and a substantial number of IMO treaty instruments have been tinkered with or checked. Which is good progress.

Definitions have been updated, gaps closed, and we are getting better at managing expectations. There will likely still be legal and insurance hoops to jump through, but it really does finally seem that the future is finally within reach.

Perhaps, just like the 1980s, it will be Japan that we ultimately look to. The nation has plans to make up to half of its 4,000 domestic vessels crewless in the next 20 years. The Nippon Foundation has backed the “Designing the Future of Full Autonomous Ship” (DFFAS) Project which sees 22 Japanese companies collaborating and the stated aim of the world’s first successful crewless maritime autonomous surface ship demonstration by 2025.

This determination puts pressure on other countries such as Norway, Finland, Denmark, South Korea and China. They all want to lead in the autonomous space, and it could be that pride, as much as anything else drives the future of shipping. Let’s hope it doesn’t come before a fall.



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Captain Stu

Making maritime informatics all it can and should be…asking questions, and finding answers.