While self-driving cars are often the subject of headlines in the newspapers, there is little news about projects describing self-driving boats. “On the contrary; most people do not even know that this is possible”, says Herbert Koelman, Innovative Maritime Technologies lector at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences and yet there have many trial runs and experiments with and around unmanned ships. “I must say: we are also on track.”

In the past you could recognize a mariner by the tattooed anchor on his arm, the callouses on his fists and the tall stories. If you compare this to the students of the Willem Barentz Maritime Academy, you will have to search long for similarities. “The sector has changed very quickly in the last few decades”, confirms Herbert Koelman. “ Open the newspapers and the main subjects are: energy transition on the one side and the increasing digitalization of society on the other. These two things come together in the maritime industry.”

The latest trend

Unmanned sailing or sailing with few people on board, is the latest trend. “ The greatest advantage of unmanned sailing is that it will make the transport of goods much cheaper”, explains Koelman. “By sailing unmanned you save lots of money on personnel costs. As a result of this it becomes less expensive to stay longer at sea, which means that you do not need to sail so fast and a smaller carbon footprint is generated. This makes sailing a lot more sustainable.” Nevertheless mariners do not need to worry about loss of employment opportunities, reassures the lector. “Because of the fact that also these self-driving boats will need a lot of support, it is just that this work will not happen so much on the ships but from shore. It is because these systems needs to be very safe and robust maritime jobs are more likely to increase rather than decrease.”

A smaller crew, lower costs, slower navigation speeds and lower emissions. It sounds as simple as one plus one is two. But nothing could be further from the truth, as the researcher knows. “Just as with self-driving cars, the problems lie with the unexpected. Self-driving cars perform well on the highway, but in a village where a child can cross a road, there still are problems. This is also true for unmanned ships. They do not struggle to sail along the straight sections of the Princess Margriet canal, but what happens is suddenly a rowing boat crosses the canal?


Regardless of these questions, the experimentation with unmanned shipping is in full swing. Koelman says, “A driverless ship is sailing in Norway. This project is still in the experimental phase. Even in the Netherlands we are progressing quickly. Together with the TU in Delft we are working on a ship that can drive itself around in a controlled environment. It is precisely in inland navigation that there are many opportunities, because personnel costs are relatively high and there is less enthusiasm for this work amongst young people.”

It will probably take quite a while before we see the first self-driving ship on the Princess Margriet canal. “There are a large number of laws and legal requirements, that determine that there need to be people on board a ship. It is  not only the technological aspect that needs to be worked at intensively, but we also the legal system is not ready for this development.” Koelman does not share people’s anxiety towards driverless ships. “ In the past you had a lift boy in the lift. Then when this was stopped people were also worried about it. Now you cannot even imagine that such a job existed.”

Herbert Koelman is an Innovative Maritime Technologies lector at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences. This research group works intensively with students in both Leeuwarden and on Terschelling at the Willem Barentz Maritime Institute .