In June, Rolls-Royce and Svitzer demonstrated the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel in Copenhagen harbor, Denmark, and last month, a platform supply vessel was successfully put through a sequence of maneuvers in the North Sea under remote control from a Wärtsilä office located in San Diego, California, some 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) away.
The companies' vision for autonomous shipping is part of a wave of enthusiasm and research around the world, but there is also a backlash.
The Maritime Union of Australia has come out saying “those representing the workers in the transport industry question both the productivity and economics of automated ships and ports.”
Speaking after the opening the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) office in Singapore on September 6, President Paddy Crumlin and General Secretary Stephen Cotton described the push for automation as a “marketing rush” where the consequences have not been thought through.
“Automation shouldn’t be a replacement for good industrial relations. It shouldn’t be used as a form of union busting which it sometimes is. It is also being used as a marketing tool that hasn’t got a practical or productive consequence,” said Crumlin.
While Crumlin accepted the technology existed, the risks and governance related to autonomous shipping remains ill-defined, he says. “No one’s going to rush in without all those risks being defined and a governance framework so they know who they are going to sue if it does go wrong. “I don’t think there’s been a balanced conversation, because it's the big new, bright thing.”
Crumlin also said: “Robots don’t pay tax.”
Cotton said he believed autonomous shipping was a long way off. “If you look at the cost, wage cost is a very small part of operating a ship. But in reality the investment to build fully autonomous ships is an issue I struggle to see quite how it will implement itself.
“Maybe coastal trade, maybe the river trade, but can you really see the British Channel or the Singapore Strait controlled by some master chess player in a darkened room? It's a very long way off.”
In an article published by The Conversation this month, Dr Christian Matthews from Liverpool John Moores University's department of maritime and mechanical engineering, said: “Removing experienced crew from ships means that any accidents that do occur could be far more severe.”
Autonomous ships are expected to have fewer accidents, as the majority of collisions and groundings are caused by human error. “If we accept that autonomous vessels might be navigated without making the same mistakes as a human crew, then the statistics do seem to stack up. But things are actually much more complex than that,” he says.
A study from March 2017 analyzed 100 accidents that occurred from 1999 to 2015. The researchers attempted to assess whether the accidents would have been more or less likely to happen if the vessel had been unmanned. They found that the likelihood of groundings or collisions might have been decreased, but they also identified that where accidents do happen, the consequences may become more severe without a crew to intervene. In particular, accidents involving fires may be more serious if there is no crew to act as firefighters.
“This means it’s far from clear that the overall risk from accidents would decrease significantly if ships were unmanned, although there is certainly a case to be made that there will be fewer,” says Matthews.
A recent study reviewing the potential economic benefits of unmanned ships found that there are savings to be made, mainly related to crew pay, accommodation and utilities. The study found that if potentially improved fuel efficiency is factored in then an unmanned bulk cargo carrier may be able to reduce the cost of carrying freight by around 3.4 percent.
However, there is also a practical problem, says Matthews. The majority of ships operate on heavy fuel oil that must be heated and purified on board before use. The study found that it would be impractical to automate this process. If that is the case, then unmanned ships would need to operate using a more refined fuel. This would reverse the economic argument substantially, increasing the cost of transporting freight by as much as 14.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the Yara Birkeland is touted to become the world's first autonomous ship. The vessel, ordered by the fertilizer company Yara and currently being built in Norway, is expected to launch in 2020. It will operate close to the Norwegian coast, so the current lack of international regulations governing autonomous shipping won't apply.
More vessels are in the planning stages, and equipment manufacturers such as Kongsberg continue to develop the technology. Additionally, class societies are boosting their involvement including, for example, DNV GL and ABS, and regulatory discussions are now underway at the IMO.