Autonomous shipping as a possible solution to impending labour shortages in the shipping sector

News - 08 December 2016

The captain is on dry land instead of aboard his ship. From his impressive control room, which is comparable to the inside of an air traffic control tower, he can monitor all ships wanting to call at the port of Rotterdam. He no longer needs to be involved with the logistical side of things because the vessels plan their own schedules with container terminals, locks and bridges. Just as sailors are no longer required on board, a captain is no longer required at the helm of the ship. However, the vessels do contact their on-shore captain if a component is broken, for example.  

This is the future of autonomous shipping. It could be an answer to the looming labour shortage in the shipping sector, which is arising partly due to the tremendous increase in the amount of cargo being transported by sea around the world. 


'Another big advantage of unmanned shipping is that the transportation of goods becomes considerably cheaper. As a result, cargo will be transported by water more often than over land,' says associate professor Rudy Negenborn. 'The costs are also reduced in another way: since ships, container terminals, bridges, locks and other facilities within the harbours can automatically exchange information with each other, they can efficiently coordinate how quickly and which route the vessels need to sail to reach a specific location in order to collect and deliver their cargo.'

Scientists at TU Delft also think that autonomous shipping is safer. 'At the moment, 75 to 95 percent of all accidents at sea are partly caused by human error,' said Robert Hekkenberg, a researcher in the Marine Technology programme.


Of course, there’s still a long way to go, and there are numerous obstacles to overcome - technical as well as legal. Hekkenberg thinks that the legal framework will be adjusted by 2030. 'On the technical side, there is still a lot to do, but the concept is really gaining momentum. For example, Rolls-Royce, a major player in the shipping industry, has unshakeable confidence in the future of autonomous shipping. We are expecting the first pilot projects to get underway soon.' 

'The important thing to remember is that it’s not a question of all or nothing,' says Hekkenberg. 'We can automate parts of the process step by step, just like automation in cars progressed. A key intermediate step towards real autonomous shipping is, for example, unmanned shipping; so there is no crew on board, but humans are still in control from dry land.' 

Complete redesign

For Hekkenberg, completely redesigning vessels poses a great challenge because existing ships were designed to work with the help of crew. 'On board, people can walk between the complex machine installations, touch them, listen to what’s going on, replace a filter or make a few small adjustments. If there is no longer a crew on board, today’s vessels will soon come to a standstill. This is the first time that we have really had to completely rethink the design of ships since we made the jump from wooden sailing vessels to steel steamships. Our current framework for designing ships is irrelevant for autonomous shipping. We are actually in the midst of a major system change.' 

More information

The Towards autonomous ship systems colloquium  
Following the colloquium on Wednesday, 14 December, there will be a short autonomous shipping demonstration at around 14:00. You must register for the demo if you would like to attend. To register, please contact Ilona van den Brink

More information about autonomous shipping.


Rudy Negenborn,, +31 (0)15 278 67 18.
Ilona van den Brink (TU Delft science information officer),, +31 (0)15 278 42 59.