Autonomous Ships: IBM Is Fitting Europe’s Biggest Port to Support New Boats

The port of Rotterdam is gaining new powers.

Rotterdam, home to the largest port in Europe with over 140,000 ships processed every year, is getting ready for autonomous ships.

IBM and the port’s authorities announced last week the delivery of a new Internet of Things platform, first revealed one year prior, that’s designed to give authorities access to a wealth of data and make smarter decisions. An IBM spokesperson confirmed to Inverse that the project paves the way for autonomous ships in the future. The company’s stated goal is to host these super-smart vessels in the port as early as 2025.

“It’s a fantastic step in the development of Rotterdam as ‘smartest port’,” Ronald Paul, the port authority’s chief operating officer, said in a statement.

The projection matches plans from other firms. Intel and Rolls-Royce announced in October 2018 a test pilot for such technologies around 2025. Kevin Daffey, director of Engineering & Technology and Ship Intelligence for Rolls-Royce, told Inverse at the time that “an ocean-going autonomous ship is going to happen around ten years from now, towards the end of the next decade,” and while not every ship will go autonomous, “it’s highly likely that ships will make use of intelligent systems, even if they retain crews.”

Shipping constitutes around 90 percent of all global trade, and around 1.6 million seafarers are estimated to work on these ships. Experts have warned about the effect of autonomy on jobs like trucking, with American presidential candidate Andrew Yang calling for a basic income. An International Chamber of Shipping study released in October suggests these effects will be lower in shipping due to its specialized nature. The chamber’s Secretary General, Guy Platten, told World Maritime News that “the study indicates that there will be no shortage of jobs for seafarers, especially officers, in the next two decades.”

Intel and Rolls-Royce's depiction of their ships in action.


Before autonomous ships start weaving their way through the waters, IBM’s system plans to help manned ships work smoother. The first application is a hydro/meteo system that uses 44 sensors to measure tidal height, wind speed and other variables to determine information like the best time for ships to leave the port. This can determine the smoothness of a ship’s ride into the port. The system is expected to save $800,000 for operators, up to one hour in berthing time, and the ability to dock more ships in a given day.

The area is expected to receive more attention over the coming months: around 30 miles away in Amsterdam, the Autonomous Ship Technology conference is set to gather this June. Architects, fleet owners and more are set to discuss their findings and chart a course forward.