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Giant leap for unmanned kinds?

Katherine Si charts China’s efforts to build autonomous ships.

The debate surrounding autonomous ships is hot right now, brought up at seemingly every conference, and something that divides the industry. The concept is nothing new – unmanned vessels were mooted as far back as World War Two.

China has its own plans for this technological leap. It has already delivered an unmanned marine survey to be used for weather forecasting, but now it is actively plotting designs and concepts for unmanned cargo ships.

One of the two biggest Chinese shipbuilding groups, CSSC, is seeking cooperation with domestic shipbuilding industry players – including CSSC Systems Engineering Research Institute, SDARI, Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding, Hudong Heavy Machinery and Huangpu Wenchong Shipbuilding – to develop its first generation ‘intelligent ship’.

The first project is to work on a 200,000 dwt ocean-going ship. This vessel will be equipped with over 300 sensors to consecutively monitor the ship’s operation and the condition of the ocean.

“The thinking ability of this intelligent ship will share 50% of the work of the crew,” says Zhang Hongjun, director of CSSC Systems Engineering Research Institute.

Those behind this development are adamant that intelligent ships will lead to greater safety at sea. The human element is responsible for most accidents at sea, with CSSC claiming its intelligent ship can cut accidents by 70% and make voyages 10% more efficient.

The intelligent ship project will import dynamic information of weather, oil prices, freight rates and more to a data center onshore, which could then enable the ship to choose its most reasonable routes and speed.

CSSC officials are also quick to downplay costs of an unmanned ship – something that has turned many owners away from the idea in the first place. CSSC’s Zhang says there is not much newly added hardware on its debut intelligent ship, the key is building data via software and sensors.

The design of this groundbreaking ship is already underway with SDARI taking the lead.

“It might take a couple of years. It is a great challenge but will also be a great news for the industry,” an official from SDARI tells SinoShip.

“We are at the very initial stage of the unmanned cargo ship design and build. When we have completed the design, our own shipyards will be able to build it,” he adds.

China looks like it is in a race with the UK’s Rolls-Royce to build the first autonomous ship. The UK engine manufacturer has brought a number of high profile names onto its autonomous vessel project and has a couple of years’ head start on CSSC.

This article first appeared in the recently published latest issue of SinoShip magazine. Readers can access the full magazine for free by clicking here.

Katherine Si

Having majored in English Katherine started out at news portal where she rose to become News Editor. In 2008 she moved to work with Sam Chambers and has since held numerous positions including China correspondent for Seatrade magazine. Katherine is in touch with Chinese owners and yards on a daily basis and has had many prestigious news scoops reporting China’s fast evolving maritime scene.


  1. It is no joke that the concept of autonomous ships is mentioned at essentially every maritime conference, as this was also the case at last week’s Asia Pacific Marine Conference in Singapore.
    During Q&A one panel was asked, in view of existing technology (the Rolls Royce project, RINA’s InfoShip, etc. etc.) how long will it take before we see unmanned cargo ships operating on the seas and oceans.
    One panelist responded by informing the participants that there are already small unmanned ships in operation capable of carrying 100 teu containers between coastal ports, and these ships are executing at sea ship to ship transfer of containers.
    Sure, these are small ships, but one could conclude that the future of autonomous cargo ships is already here.

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