When it comes to autonomous shipping, grandiose visions of 100% unmanned vessels sailing the world’s oceans and ports are often painted.

In reality, there are still many obstacles to overcome if we’re to reach such a vision. The main barrier is the lack of compelling business cases, along with the lack of an agreed regulatory framework to govern autonomous operations and uncertainty over whether fully unmanned vessels are even desirable. Indeed, a common misconception is to equate “autonomous” with “unmanned”.


But autonomy isn't just 'unmanned', it's a spectrum

Fragmented, incompatible solutions

The reality is that autonomy is a spectrum, with solutions that can offer decision support at one end and fully unmanned vessels at the other, with various degrees of automation of the vessel systems in between. Because autonomy is a spectrum, it’s also something that can already be harnessed to create benefits for the shipping industry today. To make this happen we need an understanding of what problems can be solved with autonomous solutions, what makes autonomous operation possible and how to start implementing solutions that can move your operations in the direction of more autonomy.

Instead of contributing to the debate around what the future of shipping will look like and what role unmanned vessels will play, this paper argues that the journey itself may turn out to be more important than the destination. The pursuit of autonomous operations is already leading to smarter systems that can enhance the safety, cost‑efficiency and environmental performance of today’s vessels; in practice, this means reducing collisions or incidents—especially in busy ports—assisting with docking, saving fuel through optimised speed profiles, reducing associated emissions and optimising crew numbers. At Wärtsilä we call this “smart autonomy,” and it means a stepwise and commercially viable approach for your operations that can be applied today—as part of a longer journey towards an autonomous shipping future.

Naturally, automation is a key enabler for autonomous solutions. But this alone is not enough. In order to make autonomous systems a reality, three broad capability areas and enablers are critical.

Situational awareness

Creating awareness of what is going on around and onboard the vessel and collecting data by using sensors such as radars, lasers and cameras.

Decision making and logic

Intelligent algorithms that are able to interpret a scenario based on data and decide on a safe and effective course of action.

Action and control

The contro systems that enable autonomous actions, where decisions made by algorithms are executed to accurately and safely take care of functions that are typically handled by humans, such as manoeuvring the vessel, adjusting speed etc.

By implementing solutions to improve operational capabilities in any of these three areas, you are already on the path towards autonomous operations. In order to show how this is possible in practice, this paper will also look at examples of solutions and concepts from Wärtsilä Voyage in these areas.

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