2017-12-08 09:38:18

Drones and self-driving cars will soon be joined by unmanned cargo ships, as a shipbuilder in southern China plans to construct the world’s first autonomous seafaring freighter in 2019.

Oceanalpha, a company headquartered in Zhuhai, a port city in Guangdong province bordering Macau, signed a contract on Wednesday with the local government, Wuhan University of Technology, and the national organization for shipbuilding standards to codevelop a cargo ship directed by artificial intelligence.

The “ghost ship” is named Somersault Cloud after the magical cloud that transports the Monkey King in the classic Chinese saga “Journey to the West.”

A full battery charge will be able to power the ship for 500 nautical miles (926 kilometers), Oceanalpha’s founder, Zhang Yunfei, said at a news conference at the Marintec China exhibition in Shanghai. Equipped with a variety of sensors, the 50-meter, 500-metric ton cargo ship can collect large amounts of data and map out a route to avoid obstacles.

A self-sailing cargo ship is expected to lower costs, decrease accident risk, reduce carbon emissions, and enable continued operation through extreme weather events. But due to restrictions on unmanned cargo ships in international waters, currently the ship is only approved to transport supplies to islands near Zhuhai.

Zhuhai is known as the “city of a hundred islands,” and according to Zhang, residents on the islands along its coastline rely heavily on ships to remove waste and bring them fresh water and produce. “When the typhoon struck Zhuhai this summer, residents on many islands ran out of food,” said Zhang.

However, as with self-driving vehicles, many security and legal issues cloud the future of autonomous shipping. “We hope it’ll be easier to get permission from authorities by operating in relatively closed waters,” Oceanalpha said in a statement to Sixth Tone.

Oceanalpha is not the only player in the autonomous shipping industry. In June, HNA Technology, a subsidiary of HNA Group, signed a contract with a consortium of shipbuilders, research institutions, and classification organizations — which set standards for shipbuilding — to develop an 87,000-metric ton unmanned cargo ship by 2021. Globally, Rolls-Royce leads an initiative that uses Google’s machine-learning technology to train the company’s classification system to detect, identify, and track the objects a vessel may encounter at sea.

In international waters, countries are urging the International Maritime Organization — the United Nations agency responsible for regulating shipping — to map how existing international regulation can be applied to autonomous ships and other new technologies.

To guard against the risk of piracy, a remote-controlled craft will travel alongside Oceanalpha’s autonomous cargo ship. Once the smaller vessel detects pirates in its proximity, it can launch attacks with machine guns mounted on board, said Zhang.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: The Image Bank/VCG)