Hyundai’s self-steering ship subsidiary says it has made hundreds of sales

Avikus’s semi-autonomous technology recently helped guide a natural gas tanker from Texas to South Korea.
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· 4 min read

Though large, fully crewless ships are still uncharted territory, semi-autonomous vessels might be catching on.

Lured by the promise of lower labor costs and decision assistance, some commercial shipping companies are looking to explore autonomous navigation systems. In one of the latest and most ambitious experiments with the technology, a natural gas tanker named Prism Courage ventured from Texas to South Korea in May, completing about half of its 33-day test journey on June 2 without the help of a human crew.

Avikus, a Hyundai subsidiary, is the company behind the voyage. It equipped the boat with its autonomous navigation system, HiNAS 2.0, which still requires a human crew in crowded sea areas, docking, and near ports. Although the tech is still in its early stages, the system will be ready for commercial use by the end of 2022, and the company’s VP of business development, Carl Johansson, told us Avikus has made “a couple hundred” sales of its system already, although he declined to name a specific figure.

Semi-autonomous seas

Avikus works directly with its parent company’s shipbuilding division, Hyundai Heavy Industries, which is one of the largest shipbuilders in the world. Johansson declined to disclose what percentage of new ships built by HHI will employ its autonomous technology, but he said they “intend that it will come as a standard for new builds through HHI.”

Avikus also sells its navigation system and “usually some additional cloud services and fleet management services on top of that,” to commercial shipping companies like ferries, container ships, and cruise ships. Korean lines Sinokor, SK Shipping, and Hyundai Glovis, plus Greek ship management companies Capital and Metrostar are among the customers Avikus said it’s working with.

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Shipbuilders and shipping lines are interested in the technology because it can reduce human error and supports the human crew, Johansson said. But, the technology’s biggest selling point, according to Johansson, is that it can increase safety and reduce the skill level necessary for seafarers. In 2020, there were 49 large ships lost worldwide, and “between 75% to 96% of marine accidents can involve human error,” according to Allianz reports.

Avikus isn’t alone in developing this tech—companies from IBM to specialized startups like Sea Machines Robotics and Orca AI are also working on autonomous navigation tech.

Where to next?

Before autonomous navigation software is available on the market, it undergoes research and regulation through the International Maritime Organization, the special agency under the United Nations that regulates shipping, explained Natasha Brown, head of public information services for the IMO.

“International sailing requires international regulations, but you can have local [regulations] within one country’s domestic waters, and then that country decides the rules., There it will happen much earlier,” Johansson said. He cited the Nordics, South Korea, and Singapore as major test areas, plus “a little bit in the US.”

The IMO plans to develop a mandatory code for autonomous navigation software that will go into effect in 2028 and would be enforced by individual nations or ports, Brown said.

Looking ahead, Johansson told us that the technology for entirely crewless, international ships will be ready in 2030, at the very earliest.

“It’s not about full autonomous decision-making right now, particularly around larger shipping. said Gordon Meadow, chair of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology’s MASS special interest group. “It’s about providing decision support capability to the human in the loop.”

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