South Korea wants to lead in building autonomous ships

Pivoting maritime industry into the future.

On October 29, the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy announced that it is starting a national project to build an autonomous ship in 2022. The ministry will invest 45 billion won (US$38.1 million) in this pilot project.  Many experts expressed high hopes for South Korea to lead the global autonomous ship market, but some are concerned that the government currently does not have the requisite capability and infrastructure to do so.

The ministry says that autonomous vessels are “value-added vessels that can support and replace decisions of the crew through intelligent and autonomous systems based on artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, and sensors”.

The details of the construction plan are not released to the public yet, but the ministry stated that the planned autonomous ship can carry up to 300 people and the testing will be in coastal waters of Ulsan, the seventh-largest city in the country, where the ministry will build a R&D center.

Reducing maritime accidents 

Kim Yong-gyun, deputy director at the Institute of Information & Communications Technology Planning & Evaluation (IITP), in his report “Recent trends and implications for autonomous ships in and outside South Korea”, stated that one of the big benefits is reducing the number of maritime accidents as 75 to 96 percent of worldwide accidents happened due to human mistakes. 

In South Korea, the number of maritime accidents has been on a constant rise since 2001 and hit a record high number of 3,156 cases in 2020.  

Using autonomous ships will also reduce operating cost.  Kim stated that “over 80 percent of shipping costs are used to pay for fuels and labor” and operating autonomous vessels can help reduce both costs.

Challenges facing South Korea

There are concerns that the government is not collaborating with the industry and is going about the development of autonomous ships unilaterally and this is a missed opportunity to reap advantages from synergy and economy of scale.  Even the shipbuilders are going about it individually.

For example, Hyundai Heavy Industries established subsidiary Avikus in December 2020, tested an autonomous cruise boat which can carry 12 people in June 2021 and will roll them out for sale next year.  Samsung Heavy Industries has developed an AI-based collision-avoidance system and in September, the company tested it successfully on a 9,200-ton cargo ship.

However, in Japan and Norway, which are at the forefront of developing and building autonomous ships, the governments are working with the industry as well as academia through consortiums.

Kim told Maritime Fairtrade that it will not be easy for the Korean government to develop autonomous ships on its own without the help of large shipbuilders that are already ahead of the learning curve.

“According to the Smart Vessel Roadmap promoted by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, the government aims to build autonomous ships and commercialize them,” Kim said.

“However, it won’t be easy for the government to develop and localize the autonomous systems on its own. The government must seek assistance from private companies to back their plans.”

Moreover, Kim added that shipowners may prefer systems developed by European vendors as many of their systems are already accredited globally and have stronger branding power.

“Having competent technologies and selling them successfully are two different things,” Kim said. “Even if Korean shipbuilders can offer a good locally built system, shipowners may still want to buy European ones, which are already verified and well-known.”

Also, Kim explained that unlike European developers, Korean shipbuilders’ main focus has been on building ships rather than developing autonomous systems, which is an impediment for them to become global leaders.

“I think Korean companies must establish partnerships or strategic alliances with European developers to learn their technologies for further development,” he added.

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