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  • Writer's pictureSarah Whiteford

How do autonomous vessels work?

Autonomous vessels operate without human interaction at degrees ranging from limited help that informs a mariner’s decisions to fully autonomous vessels that circumnavigate the globe with zero crew. Just a few years ago the first autonomous ship was put into service, with many more roaming the seas today. We’ll take a look at how these ships work, their degrees of autonomy, some vessels already in use today including MayFlower, Saildrone Explorer, and Yara Birkeland, and the future of autonomous vessels.

Kongsberg autonomous vessel in orange on the water

“Image courtesy Kongsberg Maritime”. Image from The Maritime Executive.

How do autonomous vessels work?

Autonomous vessels use computers to process information and make decisions on movement. They are usually pre-programmed to follow a certain route, similar to how a crew would plan their shipping route in advance of leaving port. Once on the open ocean weather, vessels, and other objects mean vessels need to make decisions on how to get around these obstacles. That’s where they make use of sensors, similar to a self-driving car, that allow them to “see” via cameras, radar, thermal imaging, and LIDAR. The computers on board make these decisions based on algorithms programmed by engineers. These programs function similarly to how experience does for a human on a vessel: upon seeing an oncoming vessel, the crew would take in information like speed, size, waves, and proper passing procedure to then navigate safely by the vessel. Autonomous vessels do the same: they use sensory information to make decisions about how to travel. Many autonomous vessels can be controlled by remote control as well, so there is still a human backup that could intervene in case of an unexpected event.

Current automation systems help crew members make informed decisions on the bridge in order to provide a layer of safety and ease stress. Forbes cites a study by Allianz that found 75-96% of maritime accidents are caused by human error. Tel-Aviv has Orca AI, a system that detects objects, including other vessels, and warns the crew if there is a possibility of a collision. It uses low light and thermal cameras to see in ways the crew can’t, providing another set of eyes, making it easier to see in the rain, darkness, or fog. These semi-autonomous systems provide more information that can help reduce errors that may be made by bad judgement or fatigue.

Autonomous electric ferry at dock - rendering

Self-driving electric ferry rendering. Image from CNN.

Completely autonomous vessels are being tested on a smaller scale as the technology matures. Many inland and coastal waterways are prime targets for ships as the journeys are short, fixed, and provide the perfect opportunity to test new technologies in a safe environment while minimizing bad weather or being stranded far from shore. The goal of many of these short routes is to reduce road congestion and emissions from other forms of transportation like diesel trucks. The Flemish Smart Shipping program seeks to make use of over 1,000 kilometers of inland canals and rivers in Belgium for the purpose of lowering emissions and congestion. Autonomous ships with minimal crew would navigate the waterways with a waterborne communication system consisting of smart infrastructure like automated canals and locks. Smart Shipping is already active and legal via new Flemish regulations for these vessels.

The city of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions are working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT to produce RoBoat, a fleet of autonomous vessels. The vessels will be modular and will be “outfitted for household waste removal, logistics movement and ferry operations, all based on the same hull design”, according to The Maritime Executive. RoBoat uses LIDAR and HD cameras to navigate inland waterways and has already been testing in Amsterdam, drawing interest from other cities like Tokyo, Paris, and Copenhagen.

Autonomous ocean crossing vessel: Mayflower

Mayflower autonomous vessel on the ocean, IBM logo on the side

“ProMare and IBM's Mayflower in its first Atlantic crossing attempt in June. (IBM)”. Image from The Washington Post.

Mayflower is an autonomous ship built to sail from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts as the original Mayflower did 400 years before. It has had successful shorter voyages and was sent out on its Atlantic voyage in June 2021. Unfortunately, a minor mechanical issue meant the vessel had to be called back to shore and fixed. It’s scheduled to try the voyage again, still piloted by its AI Captain. “The ship is a triple-hulled vessel that uses a combination of wind turbines, diesel and solar power to travel across water”, according to The Washington Post. The vessel has six AI cameras and other sensors to detect other boats and hazards. The end goal is to provide a vessel that can do research autonomously, which is now a tricky and expensive task. It will go through additional sea trials before being launched on its transatlantic voyage again in Spring 2022.

Autonomous vessels: Saildrone

Orange Saildrone on the ocean passing a ship

Saildrone on the ocean. Image from Saildrone.

It’s January 2019, summer in Antarctica, but 80 mph winds and 50 foot waves are fighting a 23-foot long wind and solar-powered autonomous vessel: Saildrone Explorer. It’s on a 196 day round trip of 12,000 nautical miles to circumnavigate the continent while colliding with giant icebergs and fighting some of the most extreme weather on the planet. Saildrone “deployed a total of four drones on a scientific mission to survey krill abundance, track tagged penguins and seals, and measure the rate of CO2 absorption in the Southern Ocean for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA”, according to The Maritime Executive. These uncrewed systems are helping scientists better understand “Spaceship Earth” and its natural environment through data. The U.N. Decade of Ocean Science, part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030 wants to encourage exploration and knowledge to reverse the decline of the marine ecosystem, including mapping the currently unmapped 80% of the seafloor by 2030. There is so much we don’t yet know about the oceans, and yet the Blue Economy supports 31 million jobs and is worth $1.5 trillion per year, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Saildrone plans to build 1,000 USVs, or Unmanned Surface Vehicles, each covering 360 square nautical miles, to provide information on the ocean in almost real-time. They’ve already transversed more than 500,000 nautical miles in more than 10,000 days at sea collecting data. Richard Jenkins, the founder and CEO of Saildrone previously broke the land speed record for wind powered vehicles at 126.2 mph. He did it with a rigid wing based on the properties of an airplane wing, technology now used in his autonomous USVs. The vessels are doing well and are quite inexpensive to operate: about $2,500 per day, or roughly 3-7% of the cost of a traditional crewed survey vessel. They are building larger vessels to survive harsher climates, and in 2021 one of their drones successfully navigated through a hurricane. Check out the video from inside Hurricane Sam from NOAA.

Autonomous electric cargo ship: Yara Birkeland

Yara Birkeland on the water. Image from CNN.

Yara Birkeland is set to become the first zero-emissions autonomous cargo ship in the world. Yara International, a Norwegian chemical company, designed the ship to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remove trucks from the road, moving that transport to sea. Kongsberg Maritime and shipbuilder Vard partnered with Yara to build the vessel from concept to seaworthy in four years. Cargo capacity will be 103 containers with a top speed of 13 knots, according to CNN. It will be powered by a 7MW battery that will be recharged from Norway’s grid that consists of almost all hydroelectric power. The battery is approximately one thousand times the size of the battery in an electric car, and will help the ship eliminate 40,000 truck journeys per year, or around 100 trucks that travel every day on the road to ship the same amount of goods. Although the vessel has no crew, it will require humans to load and unload, until those functions are also taken over by autonomous technology. The launch of the Yara Birkeland was delayed by the pandemic, but it is expected to make its first journey from Herøya to Brevik by the end of 2021, making it the first autonomous cargo ship and first fully electric containership. It’s not too far behind the world’s first autonomous vessel, which launched in Finland in 2018.

Regulating autonomous vessels

There are over 1000 maritime autonomous surface ships, or MASS in operation by 53 organizations across the globe. There isn’t a lot of autonomous vessel specific regulation, so the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been working on ideas to regulate the new ships. Some regulations under recent consideration include “remote control station regulation; determination of remote operators as mariners; autonomous shipping SOLAS equipment requirements; and regional-specific regulations”, according to The Maritime Executive. As more autonomous vessels prove seaworthy, specific regulations for uncrewed vessels are sure to follow.

Autonomous vessels - Ocean Infinity Armada in green on the ocean

Ocean Infinity Armada rendering. “(Image: Ocean Infinity)”. Image from Offshore Engineer.


There are estimates of savings of over $7 million over the course of a vessel’s life in crew and fuel, with CB Insights estimating crew related costs can be as much as 30% of a voyage’s total cost. But autonomous vessels are still in the testing phases and huge ships in congested waters means humans are still needed on board to make decisions that can only come with experience. It will likely be a slow takeover of handling some functions, reducing the need for crew as the technology becomes more advanced. Smaller inland vessels will also start going autonomous, but still may require someone on board in case of emergencies. As autonomous road vehicles continue to grow in popularity, this data will feed into maritime and help ships become more efficient and autonomous as well. IMO is still working on regulations for these new vessels and what they require beyond standard maritime laws. The network of sensors and programming done on these vessels will also improve over time. According to Orderhive, Rolls Royce found with their AAWA project that using multiple types of sensors to combine information provides the best outcome. Tests are still being done (and will continue to be for years) on how to optimize this information so vessels have the best vision and decision making.

Future of autonomous vessels

So how will mariners work with these new systems? Up until now, the skill set for mariners has been completely different from what it may be in the near future. Life on a ship may become life on land for many who control and program vessels remotely and may not ever need to step foot on a vessel. The Italian Shipping Academy has already created a program to train cadets on the digitization and automation of new vessels, both crewed and uncrewed. According to The Maritime Executive, “The training combines technical competencies in electronics, engineering, data analysis, and digital technologies with the soft skills of decision-making, problem solving and situational awareness.” The plan is to teach cadets about life on board as well as the possibility of manning a vessel remotely.

One thing is certain: more uncrewed surface vehicles are coming! In only 2018 the first autonomous vehicle launched, now there are many more launching and in the planning stages. The knowledge the mariner of the future needs might look a lot more like engineering and programming than actual ocean-going experience. It will be interesting to see how we shift and adapt to this new world of autonomous vessels.

Happy Fun Fact Friday!


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