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China’s first autonomous boxship readies to enter service

The race to develop operational autonomous vessels is intensifying, with the announcement that the AV Zhi Fei, a Chinese-built 300 teu cargo vessel is set to enter service next month on a short-sea route between Dongjiakou and Qingdao.

The 5,000 dwt Zhi Fei, 117 m in length with a maximum speed of 12 knots, has been been developed by Navigation Brilliance (Qingdao) Technology in conjunction with Dalian Maritime University and the China Waterborne Transport Research Institute.

Navigation Brilliance has previously conducted autonomous trials with a smaller vessel, the Zhi Teng, to test its navigation technology, and intends to order larger autonomous containerships in the range of 500 to 800 teu if the Zhi Fei is successful.

Also in China, Yunzhou Tech has partnered with Zhuhai Port Shipping to develop a fleet of unmanned cargo vessels, primarily for river and coastal cargo transportation.

In Europe, the autonomous Norwegian battery-electric containership, the 120 teu Yara Birkeland, is now expected to be operating between the Norwegian ports of Herøya and Brevik before the end of this year.

The Nippon Foundation is also backing the development of autonomous ships with the goal of making up 50% of Japan’s local fleet crewless by 2040. As part of this programme, shipping company Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) will be carrying out trials during February 2022 of an autonomous container vessel which will pilot itself from Tokyo Bay to the coastal port of Ise. NYK has also been carrying out autonomous trials with one of its car carriers, while rival Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) is looking to commercialise much of its autonomous tech it has been developing in recent years.

Andrew Cox

During the 1990s, Dr Andrew Cox was the editor of UK Coal Review and was a regular writer and commentator on the international coal trade and related infrastructure developments. Post-2000, he has been a freelance writer, CPD trainer and project consultant. He focuses on developments in the energy, chemicals, shipping and port sectors.


  1. Here we go (again)! Are people, particularly seafarers, so expensive? When I was sailing I never noticed my pay packet bulging. However. Who’s going to tie the thing up, & let it go? Robots? Hull & machinery maintainable must be done, so are owners happy to tie the thing up every so often & have it done by (expensive) shore folks? I think the China Seas are not a particularly great place to have these things sailing around blindly, I seem to remember they are hugely congested, with vessels that seem to have no knowledge of the Rules Of The Road, at the best of times. Good luck, you’ll need it.

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