Groundbreaking Development in the Making
Unmanned ships will start operating in the next ten to fifteen years says Bjorn Age Hjollo, the e-Navigation project manager of mapping services company NAVTOR. The company is representing the maritime industry in the EU-funded ENABLE project for checking autonomous vessels for safety.
Back in May 2013 at the Shipping Industry Conference in London, audience and even some co-panelists wrote off Oskar Levander’s suggestion of unmanned ships soon becoming a reality. The Vice President of Innovation at Marine Rolls-Royce is used to such reactions on his favorite topic.
The world seems to have come a long way from May 2013. Just to put things in perspective, over 90% of the volume of world’s goods are transported via ships. Anything that affects the health of shipping therefore has global ramifications.
Other similar projects include Rolls-Royce Blue Ocean Team’s Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) and the Hronn unmanned vessel, a partnership between the UK-based Automated Ships and Norway-based Kongsberg.
In October 2016, the Norwegian Maritime Authority and Norway’s Coastal Administration opened near Trondheimsfjord, northern Norway the world’s first area dedicated to autonomous ships. The Danish Maritime Authority is partnering with the Technical University of Denmark for a similar objective.
While unmanned ships offer numerous cost and environmental advantages, there are several concerns on how safe they are. Then again, these are exposed to hacking by cyber hackers. And the million dollar investments they require beg asking whether the cost savings are worth the benefit.
The Different Projects for Developing Unmanned Vessels
Before moving ahead, we must mention the Level of Autonomy because, in the general perception, autonomous ships operate with artificial intelligence and without human contribution. This is not entirely true.
Leading classification society Lloyd’s Register (LR) has defined six levels of autonomy from AL 1 to AL 6. Only AL 6 is a completely autonomous ship capable of operating with no onboard crew at all.
Originally designed to prove, verify, and validate the safety of autonomous cars, ENABLE branched out to doing the same for autonomous ships. ENABLE will be operational till 2019 with special focus on the remote bridge or the shore-based bridge concept.
Car makers have already made substantial developments in this regard. NAVTOR is working with research institutes and car makers to test the validity of the software used for the remote bridge concept.
Secure data transmission is a huge challenge for such vessels. Other partners in the ENABLE project include IBM, Renault, Philips, Siemens, Philips Medical Systems, and Tieto.
Rolls-Royce Blue Ocean Team’s Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) is a €6.6 million project to design unmanned ships by building the technological and regulatory readiness for commercial operations of the first demonstrator of such a vessel.
AAWA has pooled the intellect of ship designers, universities, classification societies, and shipbuilders to assess the technical, regulatory, social, economical, and legal factors necessary to build such a ship. Currently, it is in the second phase and will be complete by end-2017.
Rolls-Royce has the experience to coordinate multi-disciplinary teams to design complicated technologies. The company also has the technical capacity for vessel design, power and propulsion equipment, and integration of complex systems, all necessary for making unmanned ships a reality.
Testing and validation of large ships requires a dedicated maritime area. The Norwegian Maritime Authority and Norway’s Coastal Administration opened the world’s first area dedicated to autonomous ships near Trondheimsfjord, northern Norway in October 2016.
UK-based Automated Ships and Norway-based Kongsberg are looking to build the Hronn, the world’s first unmanned and fully automated vessel for offshore operations. It will be designed for scientific industry, offshore energy, and fish-farming and will utilize the Trondheimsfjord area for trials.
Pros, Cons, & Challenges
The technology for autonomous ships is moving ahead steadily. Experts believe the global maritime community will view it seriously only when the International Maritime Organization (IMO) established guidelines for their operation in international waters.
As yet, the IMO has not done so. The Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group (MASRWG) in the UK has however defined a code of conduct for surface maritime autonomous systems and will soon come out with a code of practice.
Shipowners will favor unmanned ships on account of the cost and environment advantage they have to offer. Regulators, insurance operators, and labor unions are not that happy.
According to industry consultant Moore Stephens LLP, crew cost makes up 44% of the total, the single largest expense. Rolls-Royce believes the era of inexpensive shipping is coming to an end as oil prices will pick up after a prolonged slump.
And they have. In November 2016, member countries of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) agreed to cut oil productions in a bid to halt the fall and fall of global crude oil prices. Prices shot up immediately.
Even while OPEC members were struggling to make the decision on production cuts, in October 2016 to be precise, the World Bank had raised the 2017 estimate for crude oil prices from $53 per barrel to $55 per barrel.
Ships that do not carry seafarers are devoid of seafarer facilities such as accommodation, water storage, heating, air conditioning, and waste treatment apparatus. Such ships can be 5% lighter and burn 12-15% less fuel.
Rolls-Royce intends to make such ships use the most eco-friendly fuels. This will offset the cost needed to comply with the increasingly exacting environment norms of the near future. These ships will also have solar and wind power assistance while boasting of hulls that create minimum drag.
Navigation in open seas is not a great challenge. We already have specialist cameras that can provide better visuals than humans during days, nights, and fogs. Not to mention the navigational capacity added by RADARs and SONARs.
But are the cost and expense worth the benefits? Taking 44% as the crew cost, large container ships spend about $3,299 per day. The investment into unmanned ships runs into millions of dollars.
Cyber security remains critical for the success of unmanned ships for these can be misguided by hackers – a third party, a company employee, or an inadvertent threat. The use of military grade technology is a possible but highly exorbitant solution.
Then again, there are serious concerns about the number of seafarer jobs such ships will cut. All disruptive technologies generate the job loss bogey the way computers did back in the 1970s. In recent times, 3D Printing has partly created this job-loss ogre.
It is for this reason that the International Transport Workers Federation is opposing autonomous vessels. Over the long term however such technologies create more jobs than they cut. And the unmanned ships technology is decades away from being disruptive.
According to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty AG, most maritime accidents are a result of human errors. Theoretically, unmanned ships would be free of such accidents. But that is only half the story.
Often, it is the incompatibility between humans and technology that causes accidents. The makers of unmanned ships will have to take pains to ensure there is absolutely no incompatibility between diverse disciplines and technologies that go into making autonomous vessels.
And navigating unmanned ships in and near ports would be impossible considering the immense complexity involved. Similarly, ships carrying hazardous cargo will have to be manned. And we will require humans at ports to load, unload, repair, and maintain ships.
Technology is here to stay. Innovations create a set of critics and a group of admirers. And there are the fence sitters in between. It is only after the technology demonstrates its utility, safety, and reliability that it becomes widely acceptable. As yet, unmanned ships are far from this mark.
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