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British firm to build world's first offshore automated ship

But crewless boats are a long way off

In January, the British firm Automated Ships and its Norwegian partners Kongsberg Maritime will begin work on the first offshore vessel that can be run with no captain, crew, or engineers.

The ship, named the Hrönn, is being designed as an offshore support vessel capable of delivering cargo to remote locations, launching and retrieving unmanned submersible craft, and acting as a resupply vessel for North Sea oil rigs. It will be launched next year and, pending successful sea trials, will be certified for offshore use the following year.

"The advantages of unmanned ships are manifold, but primarily center on the safe-guarding of life and reduction in the cost of production and operations; removing people from the hazardous environment of at-sea operations and re-employing them on-shore to monitor and operate robotic vessels remotely; along with the significantly decreased cost in constructing ships, will revolutionize the marine industry," said Automated Ships MD Brett Phaneuf.

The shipping industry is keener than its automotive cousins to get robot ships running commercially. The industry has been revolutionized by containers, which slashed the cost of shipping goods, and is now hoping for similar savings by taking humans out of the equation, or helping to augment them.

"The Hrönn is an incredible ship and a great example of Kongsberg's commitment to developing autonomous and unmanned vessels," said Stene Førsund, EVP global sales & marketing, Kongsberg Maritime.

However, the two companies may mind that automating the ship is the least of their worries. Keeping it in full running order and getting it to and from the dock could be quite a different matter.

For a start, almost all commercial ports require that a human be at the helm when dealing with traffic – often a local pilot who knows the waterways and their foibles. Pilots can board the ship as it approaches port, but they would need to be trained in how to run an automated ship.

The second problem is that there's a reason all ocean-going commercial craft have engineering staff on board. Ships break down a lot and having a skilled – if expensive – crew on board is essential to taking care of the engines and power systems.

If an automated ship breaks down, then the shipping company faces a quandary. Depending on how far offshore the stricken craft is, they would either have to sail out a repair crew or fly them out. Both are not cheap options, and regulators are unlikely to warm to the fact that there are disabled craft just drifting over shipping lanes. ®

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