Unmanned Vessels - At What Cost?


Published Mar 4, 2016 7:05 PM by Dione Lee

The beginning of this year has seen action on two projects advancing the concept and design of unmanned vessels, but will the cost ultimately outweigh the benefits?

Less than two months after the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN) distributed its project result summary in February, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) unmanned ACTUV Sea Hunter will be undergoing sea trials in Portland, Oregon. DARPA’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) is 132 ft long, built to track submarines, and to test and explore the performance of an unmanned vessel designed to “not have a human ever step aboard” during operations.

MUNIN is a collaborative research project, co-funded by the European Commissions to develop and verify a concept for autonomous ships. Autonomous or unmanned ships are primarily guided by automated on-board decision systems and controlled by a remote operator in a shore control center.

MUNIN’s primary focus was to realize their vision of autonomous and unmanned vessels as a key element for competitive and sustainable shipping in the future, but only during deep-sea voyages and not in congested or restricted waters, unlike the ACTUV Sea Hunter.

A qualitative assessment was conducted during the MUNIN project that identified 23 hazards associated with an autonomous unmanned dry bulk carrier operation. These hazards were perceived by maritime stakeholders as “unacceptable high risks” unless appropriate safeguards or “risk control options” are put into place. With these hazards mitigated, the MUNIN concluded in their quantitative assessment that unmanned ships in the area of collision and foundering had less risk than manned ships. I would argue that some of the hazards and control options cited in the qualitative assessment and extracted below could also be transferred judiciously to manned vessels to help reduce risk and improve safety.  

Key Hazards
- Foundering in heavy weather
- Collision in low visibility
- Collision with conventional ships in heavy traffic
- Grounding after propulsion failure
- Collision with floating objects
- Embarkation and disembarkation of crew at a rendezvous point resulting in injury
- Fire loss of ship or systems
- Critical sensor and system failures
- Cybersecurity threats

Risk Control Options
- Redundant critical systems
- Easy maintenance
- Accurate monitoring of maintenance
- Careful design and planning of space and systems
- Manning
- Training

The argument FOR unmanned vessels is to engineer out human error, but after reviewing documents from the MUNIN project it appears that this may not address the underlying issue as there is still the risk of human error, but in a removed environment, for example: situation unawareness, data misinterpretation, and capacity overload.  

The work done by the MUNIN is extensive and the research well documented. It is an excellent start for further discussion on whether unmanned vessels truly are a wise investment. As an industry, hard questions need to be asked and answered taking into account all viewpoints prior to moving forward within this seascape. Making assumptions that unmanned vessels are safer is just that, an assumption. With no comparison data available, how are we to understand if they are safer or make us feel safer. We should proceed cautiously and responsibly using prudence and justifiable risk assessment to decide if humans or technology will be in the driver’s seat; the cost just might outweigh the benefit. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.