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Korea’s crewless ships to take on Chinese rivals

crewless ships

Samsung Heavy Industries to launch crewless, autonomous ships in 2022 to pit against China vessels

In a bid to manage the price wars with the Chinese ship builders, Samsung Heavy Industries plans to deploy its first autonomous, crewless ship in 2022. Last October, the company has successfully completed a trial with its prototype, travelling 10km – remotely monitored by a control centre 250km away.

Emergence of “smart” vessels
In the shipbuilding sector, Japan, China and South Korea occupy 90 per cent of the world’s market share. China’s dominance has prompted companies from the other two countries to either merge or acquire rivals to combat the competition.

The inclination towards Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Fifth Generation (5G) propelled the development of “smart” vessels. AI charts an optimal course to a destination while radar and high-performance cameras use space-recognition technology, similar to what is used in autonomous vehicles, to scan the surrounding environment. Ship captains monitor from a control centre on land with cameras on the vessel for monitoring and operation. In high seas, satellite communication will be used for controlling the 5G-ready ship. An official from Samsung Heavy Industries said, “We’ll keep making improvements by linking the system with AI and 5G technologies and commercialise it in 2022.”

Autonomous ships can operate with substantially reduced crew in the event of a manpower crunch. They are also likely to shorten voyage times and improve fuel efficiency. European and Japanese shipbuilders had been leading the demonstration tests, but Samsung Heavy is actively catching up and may even win the race to commercialisation.

Heated competition
As the market consolidates, companies are racing to be at the top of the technological superiority rank. China’s top two players: China State Shipbuilding Corp. and China Shipbuilding Industry Co., merged in 2019. South Korea’s heavyweight Hyundai Heavy Industries is working on an acquisition of second-place compatriot Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering. Japan’s leader, Imabari Shipbuilding acquired a 30 per cent stake in Japan Marine United, and a joint venture named Nihon Shipyard for sales and design was set up.

Samsung Heavy Industries, reportedly suffered losses for five years through 2019. The company posted a net loss in 2020 due to delivery delays resulting from the pandemic. South Korean companies used to tap their huge manufacturing capacities and price advantages to defeat Japanese rivals. Today, they are the ones defending their market shares from Chinese competitors.

Samsung Heavy Industry is now banking on automation to cope with the Chinese competition – with the latter making nominal progress. Credence Research Analysis expects the autonomous vessel market to grow dramatically to $78.8 billion by 2025, more than 25 times the 2018 level.

The push to digitalisation is key to augment a company’s edge in the competition, including that of ship crew. Regular upskilling to gain knowledge on powering crewless vessels need intense training and experience. Marine Online has an extensive network of service providers for AI and related technology training for navigation.


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