The ship’s journey led halfway around the world. It left Texas in early May and reached South Korea 33 days later. The “Prism Courage” sailed through the Gulf of Mexico, passed through the Panama Canal and crossed the Pacific Ocean – the usual route to Asia. But something was different on this trip: on a good part of the route – around 10,000 kilometers – it was not a captain who made the decisions, but a computer.

The Prism Courage is the world’s first large robotic freighter. A giant under the command of algorithms. 299 meters long, 48 meters wide, with space for 180,000 cubic meters of liquid gas. The tanker was built last year by the South Korean group Hyundai Heavy Industries and has now completed its maiden voyage.

The giant is said to herald a new era of seafaring. “What applies on the road also applies to the water,” said Do-hyeong Lim before the first trip of the “Prism Courage” to WELT: “The future is autonomous.” Lim is the boss of Avikus, that’s a daughter by Hyundai Heavy Industries. They have developed artificial intelligence for ships, a captain made up of millions of lines of code.

As with cars, ships have several levels of autonomous driving. According to the definition of the World Maritime Organization (IMO), the “Prism Courage” was on stage two: the algorithms set the course and speed, avoided other ships and avoided bad weather, but there were seafarers on board who could intervene at any time. Level two is the highest the IMO currently allows in international waters.

How did the computer brain called HiNAS fare on the high seas? Better than flesh-and-blood captains, if Avikus is to be believed. According to the company, the “Prism Courage” used seven percent less fuel and emitted five percent fewer pollutants than is usual when crossing the Pacific. HiNAS analyzed wind, waves and currents in real time and always calculated the optimal course – and thus saved energy.

According to a study by Acute Market Reports, future robotic freighters will be around 20 percent cheaper to operate than conventional ships. Algorithms don’t want food or wages, they don’t need bunks or lifeboats. So there is more space for the load. In addition, the computers should ensure greater safety at sea. According to Acute Market Reports, seven out of ten shipping accidents worldwide are due to crew error.

“Autonomous ships,” write the analysts, “are likely to receive a lot of attention in the coming period.” The market for computer-controlled tankers, container giants and frigates will grow by almost 13 percent annually and will reach more than 235 billion dollars by 2028, with the strongest increase in Europe.

But companies like Avikus also face major challenges. It is extremely complicated to equip ships with an artificial intelligence. “One might think,” Lim had said before his tanker cast off, “it would be easier to build an autonomous freighter than an autonomous car.” After all, there is a lot of space on the water and no pedestrians who run across the street when the light is red. “But the truth is,” Lim said, “it’s a lot harder.”

Because the seas have no road markings that the computers could use to orient themselves. In addition, the surface is not smooth like a highway. And close to shore, the freighters can suddenly be snubbed by fishing boats and recreational sailors – the equivalent of careless pedestrians.

Not only Avikus works on ghost ships. Another important player is the British group Rolls-Royce. The technologies that the engineers use have been around for a long time, which is a big difference to the car. Radar, echo sounder and location determination via GPS, for example. Manufacturers are adding special cameras and lidar, as well as the software that connects everything and can make split-second decisions.

Some smaller robot ships are already on their way. In Norway, a freighter with an electric drive is driving autonomously, in Finland a ferry. Last year, a computer-controlled sailboat made a voyage from San Francisco to Honolulu. And in May of this year, a futuristic-looking trimaran crossed the Atlantic without a crew. But putting a large tanker under the control of an artificial intelligence – only Do-hyeong Lim and his team have dared to do that so far.

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