Hundreds of commercial vessels cross the English Channel every day. They’re often essential but usually unremarkable, except for this one – a crewless ship heading for Belgium.

Twenty-two hours after leaving South East England, the 12-metre-long craft docked in the port city of Ostend and delivered its cargo – a box of oysters – to Belgian customs officers.

The voyage was, according to the makers of the boat, a world first for unmanned commercial shipping.

The Sea-Kit cargo ship was designed and built in Essex, England.
The Sea-Kit cargo ship was designed and built in Essex, England.
Image: sea-kit.com

The vessel, named Sea-Kit, recently won the $4m Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize after it was developed to advance autonomous ocean exploration.

And its operator Sea-Kit International thinks the completion of the cross-Channel mission demonstrates its possibilities for unmanned commercial shipping too.

It claims Sea-Kit is more environmentally friendly than crewed ships, as it uses less fuel and is capable of running on wind or solar power. It also says it produces fewer emissions at sea.

Image: marketsandmarkets.com

Making waves

Others believe autonomous vessels are the future of commercial shipping, too. Rolls-Royce is heading a global consortium developing a prototype large coastal cargo ship with plans to produce ocean-going containerships and bulk carriers by 2035.

Norwegian shipbuilder Vard and technology firm Kongsberg Maritime are currently working on what they say will be the world’s first fully electric and autonomous containership. It is set to enter commercial service next year.

And in South Korea, one of the world’s biggest shipbuilding nations, the ocean and fisheries ministry recently announced it was setting aside $337 million to research and develop autonomous ships.

Vacuum docking

Autonomous vessels could have other uses, too. Last year, Rolls-Royce and the Finnish state-owned Finferries demonstrated the world’s first fully autonomous ferry in Finland’s Turku archipelago.

In Norway, Finnish marine systems maker Wartsila successfully docked a ferry at all three ports on its route without any human intervention.

The company previously made headlines when its ship became the world’s first hybrid-powered craft to be fitted with wireless charging, allowing it to top up its batteries while docked. It also has a vacuum docking system that uses suction to secure it to the quay, eliminating the need for mooring ropes.

The US, meanwhile, is testing an autonomous warship. Sea Hunter, a prototype unmanned anti-submarine ship, is undergoing sea trials with the US Office of Naval Research.

The US says Sea Hunter could travel for months at a time without any crew on board.
The US says Sea Hunter could travel for months at a time without any crew on board.
Image: US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Analyst MarketsandMarkets says it's likely humans will still be needed on some types of ships, such as cruise liners, in the foreseeable future. But it expects the market for autonomous merchant ships to grow by 7% a year, from $6.1 billion in 2018 to $13.8 billion by 2030.