The idea of autonomous vessels isn’t a new one. Back when I was a young seafarer, at about the time the Americans put a man on the moon, there were rumours that the Russians had already developed one. That ship, which apparently sailed in the Black Sea, was probably more myth that reality, but it captured the imagination of youthful dreamers such as myself. Now, after almost 50 years, those dreams look set to come true.

Autonomous ships are coming to our global waterways as sure as driverless cars will become commonplace on the road.

There are concerns, obviously. Society needs time to process the idea of 100,000dwt of steel that can be navigated remotely, while the industry requires the patience and investment to develop the right regulatory framework, undertake rigorous testing, and establish a broad consensus about the best way forward.

But the benefits are immense. Smarter ships, empowered by data sharing and seamlessly connected to onshore teams, will optimise performance, reduce costs, lower emissions and, crucially, remove the potential for human error.

This is, after all, still the number one cause of maritime incidents and accidents.

Here in Norway, the pathway is already opening up.

In October, this year the Norwegian Coastal Authority (NCA) designated an area of the Trondheimsfjord in the north of the country as an official test bed for autonomous vessels. A world first, this area, which benefits from both light seaborne traffic and an advanced maritime cluster, will lead the way in testing the technology needed to make a seemingly futuristic concept reality.

e-Navigation is key to this development.

Leading the way

e-Navigation is about more than simply digital charts.Using the latest digital innovations, ENCs and the ECDIS can be used as a foundation upon which layers of information and functionality can be built. For example, combining in-depth weather data and forecasts, with environmental conditions, security updates and traffic, and overlaying all that on top of charts, allows for continuously optimal route planning, safety, efficiency, decision making and overall fleet management. This idea finds its embodiment in NavStation, the world’s first digital chart table, launched by NAVTOR in 2014.

Furthermore, the sharing of data between vessels, maritime authorities and office-based teams, something in which NAVTOR specialises, enables both insights and overviews that give owners and operators complete control. People and assets can now be connected as never before, and this is central to autonomous vessel development.

It’s this data sharing expertise that opened the door to NAVTOR’s involvement in ENABLE.

ENABLING the future

ENABLE, which was originally proposed by the car industry, is an EU-wide, and funded, project to prove, verify and validate the safety of autonomous vehicles, of every type.

NAVTOR has been chosen as the sole representative of the maritime industry and challenged to investigate the concept of ‘shore-based bridges’, a crucial steppingstone on the path to autonomy.

Our role in ENABLE, which runs through to October 2019, focuses on testing the validity of the software element of a remote bridge concept. Built on continuous data sharing between vessels and land – a central feature of all our e-navigation products and services – this will see key navigation functions migrating from the crew to office-based teams. In short, meaning those on the land can navigate assets at sea.

Shore-based bridges will not be central to the day-to-day operation of autonomous vessels, which will steer themselves, but will be a vital part of their support infrastructure, allowing those onshore to take charge of individual ships when necessary.

We will use our expertise, together with actors from sectors such as research institutes and the car industry, to accelerate the development of not only autonomous vessels, but also further safe, reliable and innovative solutions for the maritime industry.

Fulfilling potential

e-Navigation sounds complex, but its effects are easy to understand.

Using data as a facilitator, it simplifies tasks, reduces workloads, enhances safety and environmental performance, and delivers real economic benefits for the industry.

In many ways, autonomous vessels can be seen as the zenith of e-Navigation’s evolution, fulfilling its potential with connected, digitised ships that perform with optimal efficiency, safety and security.

There is work to be done to realise the concept, but we believe that autonomous vessels will successfully set sail in the years to come. That said, I believe not every vessel will be autonomous. Ferries and liners with predictable sailing patterns are ideal candidates, but the cruise business, for example, would face a much tougher transition to autonomy.

Regardless of whether they switch to full autonomy or not, e-Navigation will soon be central to the voyages of all seagoing vessels.

That is something that this now slightly more mature seafarer knows is reality, not a dream.


Written by Willy Zeiler, Marketing and Communication Manager, NAVTOR


The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of  SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion  purposes only.


About Willy Zeiler

willy-zeilerWilly Zeiler has a bachelor's degree in graphic design and market economy. He worked for several years in the advertising industry as an Art Director and later as Managing Director. For several years he has been involved in the maritime industry holding different positions in marine electronic companies. He was one of the cofounders of NAVTOR back in 2011 where he now holds the position as Marketing & communications Manager. He is an avid sailor and possesses a navigator’s certificate.