‘Autonomous tugs may be seen in 5-10 yrs’

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Harbor tugs are likely to be the first autonomous vessels to see wide use, possibly in the next 5 to 10 years, with several companies working on their development, the head of commercial operations for a leading maritime tech firm said.

Mike Ford, Vice President of Commercial Operations, at marine and energy solutions and services company Wärtsilä Dynamic Positioning said at the recent European Dynamic Positioning Conference in London that several companies are developing autonomous vessels, led by Rolls Royce, and that the trend was “pointing towards” autonomous tugs being deployed within the next few years.

“This is a technical trend that we are seeing. We may have autonomous tugs towing and maneuvering autonomous container ships,” Ford said. “Ultimately we will see levels three to four of automation. We can expect remote control of tugs operating in harbors and more automation in shipping.”

The case for autonomy was highlighted by a report published by insurance company Allianz in 2012, which said between 75 and 96 percent of marine accidents are a result of human error.


Ford cited improvements in safety and lower operating costs through less crew as the reason harbor and terminals will focus on developing autonomous tugs first.

In an earlier technical paper, Oskar Levander, Vice President of Innovation—Marine at Rolls-Royce, said that remote controlled and autonomous ships will reduce the risk of injury and even death among ship crews, as well as the potential loss of or damage to valuable assets.

“Remote controlled and autonomous ships will allow vessels to be designed with a larger cargo capacity, better hydrodynamics and less wind resistance. With no crew to accommodate certain features of today’s ships – for example, the deckhouse, the crew accommodation and elements of the ventilation heating and sewage systems – these can all be removed. This will make the ship lighter, cutting energy and fuel consumption, reducing operating and construction costs and facilitating designs with more and different space for cargo,” Levander wrote.

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