CONNECTING PORTS #8: The Road to Autonomous Shipping

Autonomous ships efficiently transport goods along coastlines, inland waterways, and within cities. Does that sound like science fiction? In Norway, Belgium, and on the river Rhine, this is already a reality. The captain operates from a control center on land. Water-based distribution is currently being tested in Paris and New York. During the eighth CONNECTING PORTS talk show hosted by HPC Hamburg Port Consulting (HPC) on June 26, 2024, moderator Christina Prieser, Associate Partner at HPC, delved deeply into the new worlds of logistics together with three experts.

No one thought it would work," recalls Ørnulf Jan Rødseth, General Manager at the Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships (NFAS), about the early days of self-driving, unmanned ships in Europe. The German and Norwegian initiated three-year EU project MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks) in 2012. About a decade later, there are still no autonomous ships in operation without a crew, but "that will probably change in 2026", he expects. Norway is one of the pioneers in this field. Since spring 2022, the world's first semi-autonomous container ship has been transporting mineral fertilizer from the Yara production facility in Porsgrunn to the regional export port in Brevik. "It is autonomous but still operates with a crew of three and is remotely controlled from a control center," says Rødseth.

"In Europe, more than 40 vessels are equipped with Seafar technology, mostly inland ships, of which a majority is already operating with reduced crews and remote control," reports Marc Holstein, Account Manager at SEAFAR in Antwerp and head of the Remote Operation Center established in Duisburg in 2024. Three of these inland vessels navigate the Rhine between the Netherlands and Bonn. The service and technology provider has been operating crew-reduced and partially automated ships from a control center for four years. The demand is there and the system can be seamlessly integrated into the existing infrastructure and traffic flow, especially in Belgium. A viewer asked about lock navigation. Communication is done via mobile VHF maritime radio, explains Holstein. He believes that automated communication will be necessary for autonomous ships in the future. "If we truly want to benefit from automation, we need to think about automating the land side as well, not just the ships," urges Rødseth. This includes not only locks but also container handling in ports.

From the audience it is asked if European seaports are even allowed to handle autonomous ships. Holstein explains that in Belgium, both the Port of Antwerp and the waterway operator Vlaamse Waterweg permit remotely-controlled ships. In the Netherlands, the first remote-controlled ships have started calling at the Port of Amsterdam. For a project involving the Port of Hamburg, approvals from the port authority and the General Directorate for Waterways and Shipping (GDWS) are soon to be requested. Antoon van Collie, CEO of ZULU Associates, which designs and currently sets up a fleet of emission-free inland and coastal ships, shares news from France. Since May 2024, the French authorities have issued a decret allowing the operation of autonomous ships in French territorial waters. "We are in close talks with the state waterway authority VNF (Voies Navigables de France) and the French authorities to hopefully operate unmanned or partially unmanned ships next year," he says.

The moderator transitions to the topic of city logistics on water using remotely controlled, autonomous ships. In New York, the plan is to load pallets into small containers on small inland vessels, which will then transfer the goods to cargo bikes or transporters for the last mile using their onboard cranes. Van Coillie, who is participating in the project as the designer of the pallet shuttle barge, notes a "shift in thinking towards using waterways again." Currently, in Paris two small ZULU inland vessels are already employed for urban logistics. One of these is equipped to enable hydrogen propelled operation. He envisions this concept for cities like Hamburg or Berlin as well. In Norway, by 2026, the food retailer ASKO plans to shift 150 trailers daily from road to water using two battery-powered, semi-autonomous RoRo ships on the Oslo Fjord. "RoRo ships have the advantage of requiring minimal infrastructure," Rødseth emphasizes.

The moderator wants to explore how logistics processes in ports need to be redesigned for autonomous inland vessels using a practical example of transporting containers from Lille through Ghent, Antwerp, and Nijmegen to Duisburg. Van Collie first clarifies that an autonomous, remotely controlled ship is essentially a digital platform. Tasks such as transmitting orders, selecting ships, and submitting schedules to authorities can all be controlled and organized through data. "In the very short term, parts of these processes will still be conducted manually," he notes. For future development in the coming years, he sees the "very cost-effective" data analysis as a "major lever."

How need logistics and planning to be altered to integrate autonomous ships into existing operations? "Especially considering that ports will have to handle both existing and autonomous fleets in parallel," the moderator inquires. Rødseth suggests that along the Norwegian coast, it would be better to use fewer, but highly automated ports for large feeder ships. From there, cargo should be transferred to smaller autonomous vessels to serve the cities along the fjords.

Documentation poses a challenge. According to Holstein, the crew currently has to complete all documentation on board, but in the future, this could be handled by the control center on land. Van Collie highlights the EU project SEAMLESS, which aims to develop missing technological components and key technologies for coastal and inland navigation. He points out that inland shipping operators still fill out paperwork by hand today—this all needs to be centralized on a digital platform.

The audience is curious about how failures and accidents can be prevented with autonomous ships. Holstein explains why remote control increases safety, especially for inland shipping: an eight-hour shift on land is significantly shorter for the captain compared to the often 12-14 hour shifts on board, making the captain more rested and focused. Rødseth recalls accidents involving crew members at sea. Automation eases the crew's burden during a "tedious 30-day straight course across the Pacific." However, unexpected, complex situations still require human intervention—this is why land-based control makes autonomous ships so safe.

The full session Connecting Ports #08 is available here.
Journalist Kerstin Kloss summarized the event for HPC.