Goodbye Crew World: Autonomous freighters are coming…and ports better prepare

Autonomous freighters are on the horizon, but are ports ready for a massive sea freight shift? Over the past few years, various freighter manufacturers have announced plans or designs for self-contained ships. Some have even become a reality.

Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) are the future of shipping. However, many still wonder how soon these ships will be in widespread use. Are the ports ready for the major changes that this emerging technology will require?


Autonomous freighters are still in their infancy, but they are no longer a concept or hypothetical. The technology exists and is part of a wave of change affecting the supply chain. Even advanced port technology is being developed for these ships.

Perhaps the most exciting development of recent years is that of Vard Yara Birkeland. Not only is this ship the world’s first zero-emission freighter, but it’s also the world’s first self-contained freighter. It was delivered in the fourth quarter of 2020 and began testing soon after.

Vard’s next generation freighter hasn’t become the new industry standard in the years since, but it is leading the way in terms of MASS technology. It’s only a matter of time before other ships like the Yara Birkeland are finished.

So, autonomous freighters are a reality, and one that has already happened. The technology is there and the world seems excited. Of course, there are still many things to consider as the supply chain moves towards autonomous shipping and ports.


Ports around the world are clearly facing many changes and challenges already in the 2020s. The COVID-19 pandemic and the supply chain crisis have completely changed the game. Innovation and evolution are no longer a question of “if” but of “when”.

There are a few factors influencing the transition to autonomous navigation, which are also closely linked to the evolution of ports for these new generation vessels. For example, sustainability and climate initiatives have become top priorities around the world. This trend is not exclusive to the supply chain either. Manufacturing is seeing the rise of lean manufacturing practices that aim to improve efficiency and reduce waste. Consumers are increasingly demanding more sustainable packaging for goods and options for greener, carbon neutral shipping.

Climate change is even affecting where people around the world are concentrated. An estimated 140 million people will become ‘climate migrants’ in the coming years, with factors such as water scarcity and harsh weather conditions moving people where they can and cannot safely live.

All of this has a major impact on the supply chain. There is a global need for a greener supply chain, including on board cargo ships and in ports. Automation can help achieve this by optimizing the operation of freighters, making them as energy efficient as possible. Given the climatic factors mentioned above, it is not surprising that the switch to MASS coincides with a switch to electric freighters, as with the Yara Birkeland.

Additionally, in the first quarter of 2022, labor shortages in the supply chain are still an issue at ports, warehouses, offshore and in trucks. As the world increasingly turns to e-commerce, the demand for goods shipped overseas will only grow. There is therefore a clear need for solutions to alleviate the pressure in ports. Automation is an obvious way to go.


There are already groups preparing ports for automation. In 2018, a team of organizations in Japan announced a major collaboration to develop autonomous docking technology. “Auto-berthing” would allow ships to be unloaded completely autonomously, which could help ports unload ships faster and with fewer employees.

That same year, Caofeidian Port in China launched an innovative trial program for driverless semi-trailers using self-driving trucks from TuSimple. In the years since this program, TuSimple’s self-driving truck technology has advanced even further. In fact, in the fourth quarter of 2021, a TuSimple self-driving truck performed the first completely driverless test on a public road.

Automation beyond the cargo ships themselves will be crucial to adapting ports and getting the most out of MASS. After all, even though ships can reach ports faster, it won’t really make a difference if ports are still saved anyway. So it’s good news for ports that trucks are approaching full self-driving capability. With a combination of automatic docking and efficient self-driving trucks to transport cargo, ports could potentially experience incredible growth in the future.


So, are the ports themselves prepared for the future of MASS? Today, port congestion as a whole is still a serious obstacle for autonomous freighters. As mentioned above, to reap the full benefits of MASS, ports will need to adapt and embrace automation.

Basically, ports will have to be able to work with cargo ships that have no crew on board. They will have to communicate and coordinate with ships piloted by algorithms.

On a larger scale, it is worth considering new technologies such as autonomous weather reports to help guide autonomous ships through ports. This is one of the innovations that the Port of Rotterdam is developing to prepare for MASS. Ports will also need smart logistics and communication networks to coordinate the movement of docks full of autonomous ships. Some form of standardization will likely be essential to ensure that all ports can communicate effectively with the autonomous vessels of tomorrow.

In 2020, several countries around the world, including China but not the United States, came together to prepare ports for MASS. The organization, known as MASSPorts, aims to prepare ports around the world for this emerging technology. Organizations like this will be instrumental in launching MASS and making it a successful consumer technology.

Looking to the long-term future, over the next 10 to 20 years ports will likely see a large-scale move towards full automation. They will need a new niche of employees with technical expertise and an understanding of autonomous systems. Traffic flow and roads around ports will need to be adapted for autonomous vehicles like self-driving trucks. Ports themselves will need to increase connectivity in order to be able to communicate effectively with unmanned cargo ships.


The supply chain is in the midst of an era of innovation, change and growth. Although challenges persist, advances in automation offer light at the end of the tunnel. Autonomous cargo ship technology is well underway, but ports will need to adapt and prepare to reap the benefits of MASS.

On the other side of all this change, the supply chain could end up being more efficient, more technologically advanced and more environmentally friendly.

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