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European Space Agency Explores Satellites to Enable Autonomous Ships

satellites to enable autonomous shipping
(image courtesy of ESA)

Published Apr 11, 2023 8:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

The European Space Agency is joining the efforts to support the transition of shipping toward autonomous shipping. The agency is joining with The One Sea Association, a non-profit global alliance based in Finland that unites commercial manufacturers, integrators, and operators in the maritime sector to promote the implementation and creation of conditions needed for an automated and autonomous maritime transport system.

“ESA is keen to kick-off the work with One Sea Association and its members to strengthen the development and adoption of space solutions as enablers of digital and autonomous shipping, accelerating the sustainable transformation of the maritime sector,” said Rita Rinaldo, Head of Business Applications Projects and Studies Implementation Division at ESA.  

Satellite communications and satellite navigation already play a key role in the maritime world and according to One Sea will contribute to the adoption of autonomous shipping technologies and operations. During offshore passages, the organization notes that ships are often further from land than satellites. They point out the role that satellites already play in shipping saying that the technology can offer invaluable secure and resilient communication channels for monitoring, command, and control of autonomous ships.

“We are thrilled about the possibility to collaborate with ESA,” said Sinikka Hartonen, Secretary General of the One Sea Association. “We are looking forward to finding ways to jointly support the development of safe and sustainable maritime transport.”

The new partnership will combine One Sea’s expertise in the maritime sector and in autonomous shipping with ESA’s technical competence. The space agency through the Business Applications and Space Solutions program has the mandate to support the development and demonstration of space solutions in addressing user needs. 

They point to multiple opportunities where space technology could play a vital role in autonomous shipping. Among the applications they plan to explore is high-precision Position Navigation and Timing (PNT) provided by satellites which they believe will be critical for the safe operation of autonomous shipping especially in ports and congested areas.

ESA last fall also announced its sponsorship and participation in an autonomous shipping effort focusing on berthing and undocking vessels. The project is being led by Italy’s Grimaldi Group working with Kongsberg and the Radiolabs Consortium and the involvement of the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The project’s goal is to design, execute and validate the berthing assistance system in operating conditions. This project looks to launch tests aboard vessels in 2024.