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Norway - What Norwegians are learning as they pioneer autonomous ships

Norway is leading the world in developing autonomous ship technology – and the world should pay attention to its latest developments

Norway is the perfect place to develop autonomous ships. Norwegians love boats, they love technology, and they love to cooperate. On top of that, autonomous ships have practical applications that could affect the lives of many in Norway.

Mary Ann Lundteigen manages SFI AutoShip, an eight-year programme funded by the Research Council on Autonomous Ships and Operations and 22 partners. She is a professor at the department of engineering cybernetics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), where the centre is hosted.  

“Even though some people think fully autonomous ships exist, as far as I know, all first commercial ships with autonomy will start at degree 2,” says Lundteigen. “Degree 2 means the ship is remotely controlled but has at least one seafarer on board.

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Read also

The first crewless electric cargo ship begins its maiden voyage this year, J. Fingas, August 25th, 2021, Engadget

One Sea: Autonomous Shipping Has Clear Environmental Benefits, Maritime Executive, OCT 28, 2021

Samsung aims to unveil autonomous ships in 2022, Hellenic Shipping News Worldwide, 19/10/2021

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“Reaching degree 3 – remote control and with no crew on board – is a bigger challenge, so a test period at degree 2 is a good way to gain experience. And then there’s degree 4, which is fully autonomous – where the ship can operate fully on its own and with no seafarers on board. Degree 4 is out of the question for now – at least commercially. But it is an area of active research here in Norway.”

More research is focused on developing small autonomous vessels that operate in restricted areas. This simplifies the work – and, it turns out, it may provide a solution to a problem many Norwegians face every day.

“A part of our daily lives in Norway is crossing fjords to get to work,” says Frode Halverson, cluster manager for Ocean Autonomy Cluster. “Bridges and tunnels are expensive. Ferries are a better option in many situations.”

Operating several small ferries would be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than operating one big ferry. With smaller ferries, though, the cost of the crew is proportionally higher than for big ferries, so reducing the crew size has a bigger payback. Autonomous ship technology is one way of making ferries smaller and smarter.

A lab to design shore control centres

NTNU is currently working with partners to test a prototype of an autonomous passenger ferry, and a control room to intervene remotely as needed. Unlike self-driving cars, autonomous boats can be run by a remote operator in a cost-effective manner. But when the person controlling the vessel is not on board, a new set of challenges arise, including the fact that the captain may not be the one who goes down with the ship.

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