In 2017, Ugo Vollmer and Clement Renault were developing automated cars when they decided to switch to autonomous shipping as the next big thing of the future.

Both French engineers began focusing on robotisizing a small boat along with Antoine de Maleprade.

Three months after joining the incubator Y Combinator in January 2018, they collaborated with CMA CGM to install a system on cargo ships plying trans-Pacific routes that detects surrounding ships and obstacles.

Moreover, the first commercial vessels to be autonomously-operated will be tugboats and small ferries travelling to short distances.

Yet, although it is said that automation may reduce seafarers, oceangoing ships can have 20 or more crew members onboard, some of whom tend to a range of mechanical systems en route.

As Oskar Levander, head Roll-Royce’s autonomous systems efforts, commented

Diesel engines require replacement of filters in oil systems—the fuel system has a separator than can get clogged. There are a lot of these things the crew is doing all the time.

It is more likely that the helm will be controlled by autonomous systems or human-remote operations, whereas smaller crew will take care of the vessel.

For instance, Wartsila published on February, it's first ever dock-to-dock automation, presenting the benefits of the autonomous vessel.

Also, in December in Finland, Rolls-Royce presented the first public demonstration of an autonomous voyage by a passenger vessel, a state-run car ferry that avoided obstacles on a 1-mile route and docked automatically.

According to Forbes, the first commercial applications of autonomous systems are likely to be on small vessels in coastal waters in Scandinavia, where Finland and Norway have staked out testing areas.

In addition, Levander supports that autonomous ferries will be very useful to Scandinavia, as they could enable expansion of service on short routes into nighttime hours, and reduce staffing on less popular ones, with boats potentially piloted from onshore centers where one captain could supervise many.

He continued stating that many from the industry think that new-built electric vessels although will be ideal to robotize cargo shipping, electric propulsion systems will have fewer moving parts and require less maintenance.

However, it acquires decades for cargo fleets to turn over, as vessels typically stay in service for about 20 years and batteries don’t have enough energy density yet to power ships for cross-ocean voyages.

Nowadays, large vessels have marine-tested sensor systems, such as GPS, radar and a transponder-based automatic identification system. In addition, microphones are useful since they can acknowledge a vessel's horn and by algorithm the system can pinpoint its location.

In the future, ships will be autonomously operated. For example, Levander addresses that going in and out of port the ship would be controlled remotely by a captain in a centre onshore, with video and other data streaming over land-based 4G and 5G networks.

When sailing on open water, the ship would switch to autonomous mode, which wouldn’t require as much data transmittal, with captains ashore standing by to take over as needed, aided by satellite communications.

Levander noted that with automation, there will be more jobs ashore, so the life of seafarers' will be safer.

The captain doesn’t have to be away for six months at a time and can have a family life. We can provide a better life for the seafarer.

Finally, automation will bring situational awareness systems, that are expected to decrease accidents; from 2011 through 2016, 75% of incidents at sea that resulted in liability insurance claims were due to human error.