Autonomous Ships: How Close Are We?

7 Sep , 2018  

Very soon you will be taking delivery of your Amazon package by drone. Why, therefore, should the country that manufactured your purchase not be shipping it to your shores by remote-controlled boat? In an age of ever smarter systems, how close is the maritime freight industry to using vessels that have dispensed entirely with their human crews and that can cross the high seas on their own?

Fewer jolly sailors, more onshore employees!

It is a premise of every industrial advance that, when done correctly, the replacement of the human factor by automated process eliminates waste and error. In the world of international shipping it could further be noted that the involvement of the on-deck worker has always carried a human, as well as an industrial, cost: against the historical myth of the jolly seafarer with a girl in every port, must be set the reality of a ‘prison’ existence marked by homesickness, crime and, always, natural danger.

If autonomous shipping comes about, Industry employees will be stationed onshore, dedicated to the management and supervision of operations in their capacity as engineers. Then, with on-board living expenses eliminated, accommodation space freed up, and fuel costs reduced, the overall profitability of crewless ships is expected to outperform that of their predecessors, even when set against considerable initial investment.

The move towards autonomous shipping is in fact only the most recent evolutionary phase in a narrative characterized by centuries of dramatic development. Every industrial revolution has brought fundamental change to the world of ocean-based transportation: from the power of steam, to the mass-production of gigantic containers, to the already-up-and-running computerization of onshore ports and handling facilities.

Port cranes instead of human labour

The advent of the shipping-container was a particular game-changer. It was the sight of New Jersey stevedores unloading by hand thousands of cotton bales from a cargo ship in the 1930s that inspired businessman Malcom McLean to see beyond the labour-intensive, time-devouring and – importantly – unstandardized world of bundles, barrels and sacks towards a shipping future based on the mechanized movement of huge, same-sized containers.

maritime freight industry

The vision was not realised overnight – ports needed to acquire cranes; major accommodations had to be made in associated road and rail networks; dock workers’ unions protested long and hard – but when it did come, the improvement to the industry’s efficiency (the cost of shipping cargo eventually costing around 90% less than it once did) was beyond argument. Not only that, but, with the majority of containers conforming to International Standard sizes, the infrastructure supporting the worldwide movement of goods took an arguably greater step towards globalization than at any other time.

Revolutionary times for the maritime freight industry

Change in our time, though just as revolutionary, comes less out of the blue. Crew numbers on cargo ships are already surprisingly small: the Maersk E-class container ship, until 2012 the largest of its kind, is manned by less than 20 people. More significantly, the world’s first fully automated container terminals are already with us. The Cargotec Corporation’s Kalmar and Navis operations were last year responsible for providing Australia’s Victoria International Container Terminal with the cargo handling equipment and operating systems needed for fully automated functioning.

The science of autonomous shipping is in an advanced state of development. Sensor technology is central to a scenario in which large vessels move from location to location without men at the helm. Industry specialists such as the Rolls-Royce-led Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) and ASV Unmanned Marine Systems have been working with cameras, thermal imaging equipment, radar and lidar (surveying methods using laser) to create cost-efficient systems whereby a vessel can obtain a fault-free perspective on its environment in all circumstances.

Sensory information is then used in combination with software whose algorithms are designed to optimize all aspects of the vessel’s navigation, particularly collision avoidance, in accordance with standard maritime regulations; to achieve ship behaviour, in short, indistinguishable from that of a manned craft. Finally, these operations must be linked in to an onshore base so that every aspect of the ship’s automation can be monitored and, if necessary, controlled by human input. Such connectivity seeks to use existing communication technologies where possible, but is also exploring new uses of satellite-based and satcom positioning solutions such as those being developed by the European Space Agency.

autonomous ships

Remote-controlled boats will be no less vulnerable to attack than any other vessel in history; in fact, thanks to the dangers of hacking, they will be so on more levels than one. In the absence of armed guards (certainly the costliest extra load traditionally carried by commercial vessels of the past), ship manufacturers will rely heavily on aspects of boat design to discourage pirates: an absence of ladders, difficult-to-climb curved sides, razor wire and electric fences. Then again, an autonomous ship’s operating systems must be able to handle hostile attempts to redirect it or simply throw it off course (a practice known as ‘spoofing’) until a ransom is paid. Remote access to and interference with a ship navigation system is currently far from difficult.

Regulations and legal aspects

Alongside these technological developments, there are a number of legal issues that will require resolution before crewless ships can finally take to the water. The maritime regulations around the issue of collision avoidance (COLREGS), for example, usually assume human involvement. The question of liability, too, once straightforwardly the crew member’s, must be reattributed – whether to the craft’s owner or system programmer is yet to be fully debated, let alone legally determined.

The diversity of these challenges alone suggest that the arrival of unmanned shipping is not quite at hand. Even its commercial potential will have to be rather painstakingly realised. Given that a freight ship’s life is about 25 years, how great an eventual profit can honestly be envisaged after a comparatively heavy investment in the new technology? How realistic are the projected savings on fuel if the weight lost in crew accommodation is simply replaced by additional cargo? Will insurers be willing straight away to back a concept with unclear risks and no historical model?

All of which is probably simply to predict a slow pace of change. It took around 50 years for sailing ships to be completely replaced by steam. Almost the same time lag intervened between McLean’s dockside brainwave and the near-universal deployment of containers by the early 1970s. What is important is that in the raft of challenges faced by today’s pioneers of autonomous ships none seems likely to elude eventual solution.

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