The Autonomous Revolution

container ship

By The Maritime Executive 08-27-2017 11:17:51

Autonomous cars are already being tested on the streets and it looks like crewless ships will follow in the water. Rolls-Royce, which is working on autonomous technology in the maritime sector, envisages a remotely-operated local vessel being in operation by 2020 and a remotely-operated autonomous vessel in international waters by 2025. Fully autonomous unmanned ocean-going ships could be around by 2035, it says. 

In Japan, shipping companies are working with shipbuilders to develop self-piloting cargo ships, which could also be in service by 2025. In the Baltic Sea, the One Sea ecosystem project, founded in 2016, is aiming to enable fully remote-controlled vessels in three years and to achieve autonomous commercial maritime traffic by 2025.

Meanwhile, on a smaller size scale, one of the most ambitious timelines involves an effort by Automated Ships and Kongsberg Maritime to build Hronn, the first unmanned and fully automated offshore supply vessel, and have it on the water in 2018. 

Clearly, the technology behind such vessels is developing rapidly, including advances that will allow ships to be controlled remotely or operate autonomously. This could enable ships to monitor their own health and the environment around them, potentially making decisions based on that information.

Indeed, the potential use of automation goes well beyond the vessels themselves, stretching the entire length of the cargo movement chain.  “Autonomous technology has the potential to revolutionize the movement of cargo on a scale not seen since containerization was introduced some 50 years ago,” says Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Risk Consultant at AGCS.

Autonomous benefits

There are many potential benefits to be gained from autonomous shipping. Human error often plays a major role in incidents at sea. It is estimated that 75-96 percent of marine accidents can be attributed to human error. In addition, AGCS analysis of almost 15,000 marine liability insurance claims shows that human error is behind 75 percent of the value of all claims analyzed, equivalent to $1.6 billion. 

Given the role of human error in maritime incidents it is assumed unmanned vessels could be safer. At the same time, the risks inherent in having a crew, such as injury or loss of life, will be significantly reduced or even eliminated.

Then there is the potential to improve both efficiencies and productivity by saving on crew and fuel costs. The current shipping market, affected by a global downturn, faces various challenges. Crew costs can vary from around 10-30 percent of shipowners operating expenditure (OPEX), depending on the type of vessel. An unmanned ship could free up more space for cargo in place of accommodation and crew support systems.

The introduction of designated automated shipping lanes could make logistics easier, increasing the reliability of cargo transport. 

It has even been suggested that automation could result in a decline in piracy incidents, as there is no crew to be used as leverage for ransom. However, the piracy threat is ever-evolving, and there is already evidence that pirates have been abusing holes in cyber security to target specific cargoes, so the cyber security threat could actually increase in future.

Regulatory framework challenges timeframes

Autonomous shipping is likely to be phased in over time, as there are many legal and regulatory issues that need to be resolved. For example, maritime law and conventions were not drafted with crewless ships in mind and currently require vessels to have crew and a master on board. The IMO said recently it would start exploring how existing international regulation could be applied to autonomous ships.

“Yet despite unknowns and regulatory issues, autonomous shipping will happen. It’s just a question of when and how. And it is possible that the current economic pressures on the shipping industry and the need to find efficiencies, could even support and speed up developments in maritime automation,” says Kinsey.

Risk management challenges

Safety considerations will be key to the development of automation. A challenge for designers is to convince users, stakeholders, regulators and insurers that such systems are 100 percent reliable. In future, flawless communication between autonomous ships at sea and the so-called Shore Control Center, from where the vessels will be controlled, will obviously be crucial. 

Although autonomous operation presents a number of risk “unknowns” the maritime industry does have experience in this area. In some cases, unmanned vessels are not new, having been used for many years in scientific research operations and the defense sector, although these have involved much smaller vessels than what is proposed in future. 

“The issue of autonomous vessel operation has also been dealt with before on board ships, when we first started with unattended engine room operations,” Kinsey adds. “In that case, the vessels were operated in a manned state and engine room alarms were logged and analyzed.” 

Yet the list of risk factors under consideration remains a long one. For example, only large vessels routinely have tracking devices today, raising questions about the potential for collisions between an automated ship and smaller vessels. Another challenge will be assessing the risk of an environmental disaster. Without a crew, a disaster-containment response team may be hundreds of miles away.

Then there are potential issues around cargo management and safety in the absence of crew; fire protection; stability, draft and hull integrity and security; and cyber risk - which many believe will increase. For example, if an incident occurs on an unmanned vessel, such as a spoofed GPS signal, how long will it take to discover what is happening? The cyber security platform has to become more robust given the large amounts of data transmitted – especially for unmanned ships. 

“Fully automated shipping may be possible from a technical perspective, but on a global scale it may not happen given the navigational challenges of entering ports and congested routes, as well as the challenges of operating in storm conditions. It is hard to see how vessels can operate without crews to deal with emergency situations,” says Chris Turberville, Head of Marine Hull & Liabilities, U.K., AGCS.

It could be that automated, or ships controlled from the shore, will operate on local coastal routes. But for more complex transits, the journey towards automation is likely to follow the model of the aviation industry, Turberville believes. Aircraft have gradually adopted automation, but pilots still play an important role on-board, taking control during an emergency or at certain points, such as take-off and landing. 

“It has yet to be seen whether the decision-making ability of computers matches that of humans. And I am not yet convinced that the technology is there to navigate difficult conditions, like the Suez Canal or the English Channel,” adds Captain Rahul Khanna, Head of Marine Risk Consulting at AGCS. “Autonomous technology has the potential to improve safety, but a critical element will be whether there will be sufficient backup when things go wrong. 

“There is talk of autonomous shipping within the next five years, but it will probably take longer for the regulatory framework to catch-up. And while autonomous ships could soon operate on simplistic and fixed regional routes, autonomous shipping on a larger scale will take time.”
Source: Greg Dobie for AGCS

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