"Safe and efficient autonomous vessels carrying BHP cargo, powered by BHP gas, is our vision for the future of dry bulk shipping," Vice President, Freight Rashpal Bhatti, wrote in a posting on its website. The company, also one of the world’s largest dry bulk charterers, is seeking partners to work on technological changes in the sector, he said.
BHP, which charters about 1,500 voyages a year for around a quarter of a billion metric tons of iron ore, copper and coal, wants to deploy the technology within a decade, according to Bhatti. For the biggest miners, a move to crewless ships could deliver new savings in the $86bn a year seaborne iron ore market, mirroring the shift to autonomous trucks to trains that allow fewer staff to remotely operate or monitor multiple vehicles.
Deploying unmanned ships on the 10-day sea journey from Australia's northern coast to China would be a logical extension of technology that currently runs from mines to ports and allows producers to respond quickly to specific customer demands, Emilie Ditton, Sydney-based research director at IDC Energy Insights, said by phone.
"There has been in the last six months a really big change in the desire of mining companies to seek out opportunities for innovation," Ditton said. "There's a much bigger recognition that there are opportunities to innovate across the board."
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