Skip to main content

The Theory of Clusters - Application in Norway

Date: 02. juni

Hyfer aims to bring people together to discuss and develop new ideas that could change the world.

The Ocean Autonomy Cluster is doing the same. Based in Trondheim, the platform brings together over 60 local and global companies and organisations that develop, test, and deploy machines that can operate on, in, or by the ocean, with little or no human intervention. Together, they are crossing disciplines, to connect and change the way our world works.


Anything we can dream of is just one click away. But when products magically appear at our doorstep and in our local shops, it’s easy to forget what it takes to make it happen. Whether an item begins its voyage in a sunny field you’ve never seen, or a futuristic factory in a country you’d like to visit, most of them will have to journey to busy ports and traverse across swathes of oceans to find their way to you.

This global web of logistics has unified the world, but recently we’ve experienced how fragile it can be when it’s under sudden immense pressure. But what can we do to make sure our global logistics not only become stronger but also more sustainable?

Easy, turn our attention to the roaring super-highways that connect it all: the oceans.

Clusters to the rescue

“We need to streamline and completely rethink our logistics,” says Frode Halvorsen, Cluster Manager of the Ocean Autonomy Cluster based in Trondheim. “Imagine unmanned cargo ships with innovative legislation to match. This is what we need for a functioning and sustainable future.”

This type of innovation won’t happen on its own though, and definitely doesn’t happen in isolation. One of the best ways to tackle expansive and complex issues like this is by pooling knowledge in a strategic way – even between business rivals – and that’s where cluster theory comes in.

The first iteration of the theory was put forth by Alfred Marshall way back in 1890, but has continued to develop and evolve since then. At its core, cluster theory is about forming tight-knit networks of specialised actors to create agglomeration spillovers which speed up business and technological advancement. Trondheim is no stranger to this theory and the city is teeming with clusters that have sprouted around its world-class knowledge institutions.

One of the biggest ones is the Ocean Autonomy Cluster, which is part of Norway’s state-funded innovation cluster programme. Frode says the goal of the cluster is to bring together industry and academic research to drive the technology and resources needed to develop machines that can operate on, in, or by the ocean, with little or no human intervention. The scale of this technology seems to be limited only by one’s imagination and there are many who are willing to dream big.

“There’s a great amount of knowledge coming out of SINTEF and NTNU,” says Frode. “And we have extreme interest from outside of Norway too, with cluster members from the USA, Mexico, France, and Germany.” With more than 60 companies and organisations – some of which are competitors – the cluster remains a neutral platform to connect different partners and build an ocean autonomy community. Since their start in 2020, the cluster has been establishing meeting places, both virtually and in person, to bring people together. And it’s already showing results.

Self-sailing ships on the horizon

One of the projects within the cluster is the development of unmanned, autonomous cargo ships. These boats are designed to be smaller than usual cargo ships so that they can be more easily handled by local ports. Not only does this help to relieve the pressure on larger ports, it can also lessen the road transportation distance between producer, port, and consumer.

Exciting local test cases are already in the works. Thousands of trucks transport fish exports from the islands of Hitra and Frøya every year – and this number is set to increase five-fold by 2050. Autonomous boats could help to remove this road traffic and help to streamline one section of the supply chain.

The same principle can be applied to trans-atlantic sailing, with another important benefit. Without sailors on board the ships, sailing speeds can be reduced, drastically reducing emissions. “Even just a small decrease in fuel consumption can have dramatic effects,” says Frode.

Say hello to futuristic climbing robots

Autonomous ocean technology isn’t only focussed on boats: the ocean provides many problems that have the potential to be solved by autonomous machines. Take for example wind turbines, oil rigs, or fish farms out in the open ocean.

Maintenance on these vast structures is constantly required, but the crashing waves, unpredictable currents, and tangled weeds surrounding these structures make this a dangerous job for people. Instead, new technology developments mean that autonomous robots can climb up a platform leg to undertake jobs such as cleaning or even high-precision welding.

A remotely controlled robot from cluster partner OceanTech cleaning the leg of an oil rig to enable further repair and modification. Photo: OceanTech
A remotely controlled robot from cluster partner OceanTech cleaning the leg of an oil rig to enable further repair and modification.

Some may be worried that these robots are taking away much needed jobs, but Frode thinks otherwise. “The maritime industry is short 20,000 seafarers,” he says. “With ocean autonomy, we want to remove people only from the dangerous jobs to make the industry safer.”

Connecting the dots

The Ocean Autonomy Cluster has already achieved much, but Frode believes there’s more knowledge to be shared and to improve upon. That’s why the upcoming Ocean Autonomy Conference is so important, as it is a key event to help drive the momentum and success of autonomous ocean technology.

“Streamlining and re-thinking our logistics is the focus of this year’s conference. We want to tell people about these projects, the possibilities, and the future challenges,” says Frode. “But we also want to connect even more people.” A big part of the conference will focus on making industry and academic research projects attractive to each other, but Frode also wants to increase discourse with lawmakers, who are key partners to future solutions.

When it comes to global logistics, most of the maritime laws were written in a time where autonomy and remote operation were science fiction. There are some within the cluster who think that these regulations need updating. Those familiar with the basics might know that you always need a captain on the bridge of the boat to oversee control of the vessel. “But with the right technology, can the ship’s bridge be on land?” asks Frode. These are revolutionary ideas, but whatever the solution, it’s clear that it needs to be global. “We can’t just make it work for Norway,” says Frode, “we’re all interconnected.”

21-22 September

21 - 22 September
Ocean Autonomy Conference
Researchers from academia and industry, policymaker and government officials
1,395 NOK for two days or 785 NOK for one day
Rockheim, Trondheim
The Ocean Autonomy Conference aims to bring together researchers from academia and industry as well as policymakers to present and discuss challenges and ideas to help ensure a sustainable, safe, and robust future of autonomous ocean operations.
Join the conference to be inspired and find future collaborators.