Autonomous Ships Before Autonomous Cars?


Published Sep 12, 2017 7:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

Given the media focus on autonomous cars, it might be expected that self-driving vehicles will be in use before autonomous ships. The reality is quite the reverse, according to a report on the future of autonomous maritime systems produced by Lloyd’s Register, QinetiQ and the University of Southampton.

Applied artificial intelligence, low cost low size sensors, increased connectivity, improved cyber security and better energy management are all likely to drive rapid and disruptive change in the maritime industry. 

Major initiatives by organizations, such as Rolls Royce, Japanese shipbuilders and Norway-based Kongsberg (in partnership with Yara, a Norwegian chemical company) have all revealed plans to develop all-electric and autonomous container ships by 2020. There is a fierce race to be first across the finish line, states the report.

“Networks of autonomous surface and underwater vessels are set to radically change the nature of maritime operations, says Tim Kent, Technical Director, Marine and Offshore, Lloyd’s Register. “Developments widely reported in the media, such as those in autonomous shipping, are happening with greater pace than expected as little as two years ago. These developments enabled by technology provide new opportunities and potential for disruptive business models.”

Labor and costs are key factors driving the pace of change, with a shortage of skilled people accelerating the move to unmanned and autonomous ships. For example, navies world-wide are investigating how to substitute labor with autonomous technology in the face of significant budget cuts. In 2016, QinetiQ supported Unmanned Warrior, the largest demonstration of its type ever conducted, running as part of a major multinational naval exercise, as just one example of change ahead.

There are growing numbers of small-scale autonomous vessels being operated across a wide range of applications, such as ocean science, naval operations and surveying and exploration. Such vessels, operated in small fleets, are now routinely employed by the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton, U.K.). The Royal Navy's Unmanned Warrior 16 event successfully demonstrated the latest unmanned system technologies, including air, surface and sub-surface vehicles and sensors, from a wide range of nations and technology providers. Key applications included mine countermeasures and geospatial intelligence.

Unmanned ships will be more efficient, reduce emissions and operate at lower cost, but this will require effective integration of sensors with improved decision-making algorithms. Autonomous vessels feature similar technology to self-driving cars and use a range of physical sensors to power autonomous functions, including: Global Positioning System (GPS), Inertial Navigation System (INS), optical and infra-red cameras, radar, lidar (light detection and ranging), high-resolution sonar, microphones, and wind and pressure sensors.

The report authors see 2017 and 2018 as the turning point in the maturity of maritime autonomy and unmanned vessels. However, they warn that in progressing towards autonomous operation, stakeholders become more dependent on ‘the system’ for safety- and business-critical functions. It is therefore, increasingly important to consider the system-related challenges in the broadest and holistic terms. There needs to be consideration of:

• How the technology is developed, validated and applied in an autonomous system.
• Challenges associated with technology insertion and integration with existing assets.
• Associated risks, dependability/reliability in operation and overall system safety justification.
• Affordability and whether the technology represents a compelling infrastructure investment case.

The developers of autonomous systems often view people as fallible and seek to design them out of the system; replacing human weaknesses with automation strengths. This approach often fails to consider the limitations of autonomous systems and indeed the fact that designers themselves are fallible.

Beyond the engineering challenge, regulatory and legal environments present challenges perhaps as great as the development and application of the technology itself. For example, the regulatory environment has evolved over time, underpinned by the underlying assumption that manned operations are the norm and with the role of onboard crews explicitly specified in globally applicable statutory conventions. As a result, the legal liabilities around the operation of manned vessels are well established. 

This is not so for unmanned or autonomous operation and will throw up challenging issues, such as defining who the “operator” of a fully autonomous vessel is. Is it the asset owner or the manufacturer who created the autonomous system that displaced the traditional crew?

These issues need to be addressed alongside the prescriptive rules and standards to which the maritime industry is accustomed, without delaying innovation unnecessarily. 

The report is available here.