Ove Ronny Haraldsen
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The National Transport Plan from the Norwegian Coastal Administration of March this year suggested the possibility of establishing a test area for autonomous vessels at sea. Now, only eight months later, the Trondheim Fjord has been chosen as a test area for autonomous ship technology, and the Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships has been established.
The Norwegian Coastal Administration’s test area initiative is proactive, future orientated and strategically important for Norway. For Norway as a world leading maritime nation it is crucial that we secure positions within what might become the maritime technologies of tomorrow. This is a very important step to facilitate opportunities for the Norwegian maritime industries in a demanding time where a high rate of innovation is important. The authorities’ involvement is an important signal to both Norwegian and international players who work with research and development in the field – Norway is now the hub for autonomous ship technology.
Autonomous technology is becoming a larger part of our lives. Cars are already equipped with this technology. Bearing in mind the extensive testing within the automotive industry, it won’t be long until autonomous cars are allowed. Already in January 2015, Dutch authorities took the first steps toward establishing public roads as test areas for autonomous vehicles. Six autonomous taxis were set in operation in Singapore this August, and the authorities aim to have a fully autonomous taxi fleet within 2018. With the new test area in the Trondheim Fjord, Norway takes ownership of the corresponding technology and innovation for the maritime sector.
However, autonomous technology at sea is nothing new. Norway has been a leading country within autonomous underwater drones and sensors for a number of years. For example, the autonomous underwater vehicle “HUGIN”, which was developed in Norway, can map areas all the way down to depths of 6,000 meters. Norway has also shown that it can take leading positions on the sea surface. Dynamic positioning, an autonomous system that keeps a ship at rest without having to use anchors, is an example of world class technological innovation which has been and still is an important export article for the Norwegian maritime technology sector.
Autonomous ship technology is rapidly developing, but it will still take some years before we get to travel on board autonomous ferries or see large freighters without crew on board. What is certain is that the development within autonomous technologies will only go faster in the years to come. On the way towards more or less fully autonomous vessels there are many opportunities for the Norwegian maritime cluster. Automation of operations with machine learning and advanced data from the vessels’ sensor systems is already in place on existing vessels. The joint commitment we now see will help to accelerate this development. In addition to technological development, this will enhance maritime security. Ship transport will also increase as it becomes more competitive compared to road transport, which is good news for the environment. These benefits are important not only for Norway, but also for the rest of the world. The technologies and knowledge related to autonomous ships can therefore become an important export article for the Norwegian maritime cluster, both in the short and long term.
The Norwegian model with close cooperation and a high degree of trust between authorities, industry and research is one of our most important assets in technological innovation. The new test area in the Trondheim Fjord and the establishment of the Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships shows how we can respond quickly and effectively to pull in the same direction when opportunities present themselves. We now need to ensure full speed ahead in technological development and that the test area will be fully operational as soon as possible. This requires a steady human hand at the helm.