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Automated ships are about to set sail
personDuncan Jefferies eventNov 14, 2018

Automated ships are about to set sail

Automated vessels could save the shipping industry money and reduce its environmental impact, but strict marine regulations need to be updated to allow them to sail on the open sea.

All kinds of vessels have taken to the high seas over the past couple of millennia, but there’s never been a ship quite like the Yara Birkeland. When it is launched in 2020 it won’t only be the world’s first fully electric container ship. It will also be the world’s first autonomous one.

The Yara Birkeland will sail between three ports in southern Norway, and is expected to reduce diesel-powered truck haulage by 400,00 journeys a year. After a phased period of partially crew-operated service the bridge will be brought on land, with fully autonomous operation scheduled for 2022. Once it enters the full automation phase its operating costs should be up to 90 per cent less than those of a conventional ship of a similar size.

Although the Yara Birkeland seems futuristic, the autonomous ship concept has actually been floating around since the 1970s. It’s just taken a while for technology to catch up with people’s imaginations.

The autonomous vessel systems now in development are similar to the self-driving ones that automakers are developing for cars and trucks. However, ships require more sensors due to their increased size. They also need to make navigation decisions several miles in advance, and take into account weather and water currents, which can drastically alter navigation calculations. Levels of autonomy also vary between simple support for human decisions to remote monitoring and full autonomy, which has lead to a lack of clarity about what exactly constitutes an ‘automated’ ship.

Source: Yara Birkeland

Nevertheless, a number of companies are now racing to unlock the technology’s potential. Buffalo Automation, for example, has developed a system called AutoMate that integrates real-time sensor data about waterways with static information such as nautical charts. It’s navigation techniques are based on algorithms trained on data gathered from ships during challenging maritime conditions, and the system automatically adjusts when the water gets rough.

“Automate could improve the safety of commercial shipping and recreational boating by enabling early detection of obstacles in the water, such as other boats and debris, and also save fuel with algorithms that enable more efficient routes,” says Thiru Vikram, CEO, Buffalo Automation. Currently AutoMate is designed to support the decisions of a human crew, but “our AI system improves over time as more navigation data is collected,” Vikram explains, “with the aim of introducing fully autonomous navigation capability in the near future.”

Removing the crew altogether and moving some jobs shoreside would enable shipbuilders to scrap elements like the deckhouse, crew quarters and heating and ventilation systems, and develop lighter, sleeker designs that reduce fuel consumption and offer more space for cargo. Ships could even be redesigned in radical ways to make it harder for pirates to board them, while the lack of potential human hostages on-board might also deter attackers. As there would be no rush to return crew members and their families to port, automated ships could sail slower too, further reducing their fuel usage. But the biggest selling-point of automated technology is arguably its ability to reduce accidents.

In the past ten years there have been 1,129 shipping losses, the majority of which involved a human decision that contributed to the accident. Unlike humans, autonomous systems don’t make bad choices because they’re tired or stressed, or simply not being vigilant, meaning autonomous ships might cost less to insure. However, the lack of an on-board crew would make it difficult to deal with problems like fire or flooding while the ship is at sea.

Despite this issue, Rolls-Royce – another leading company in the autonomous shipping space – predicts that by 2030 autonomous ships will be a common sight at sea. “Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry,” Mikael Makinen, President of Rolls-Royce Marine, is quoted as saying in a position paper released by the company. “As disruptive as the smart phone, the smart ship will revolutionise the landscape of ship design and operations.”

Together with Mitsui O.S.K Lines (MOL), Rolls-Royce recently demonstrated a Japanese ferry equipped with its intelligence awareness system, which combines data from a range of sensors – including night-vision, thermal and normal HD cameras – with radar information and lidar-based sensor systems. This information can be used to advise a human crew or broadcast to an onshore operations centre, allowing a person to control a ship remotely. In time it should allow a ship to make decisions autonomously.

Rolls-Royce believe that the first commercial vessel to navigate entirely by itself could be a harbour tug or a ferry designed to carry cars a short distance across a river or fjord. However, it also noted in its position paper that: “Maritime law does not anticipate the development of remote or autonomous ships. This represents many ambiguities. For example, does a ship’s master or crew necessarily have to be on board the ship? For remote controlled and autonomous shipping to become a reality we need efforts at all regulatory levels.”

Source: Rolls-Royce

Indeed, the current regulatory environment is really the biggest barrier facing autonomous shipping. Maritime regulations developed over the past 200 years make no mention of automation – they simply assume a human crew is always on-board. As such, international shipping regulations aren’t clear about how automated ships could be insured or who would be legally liable in the event of an accident – the ship owner, the developer of a faulty software system or the manufacturer of a dodgy sensor.

For example, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) state that ships must be controlled by human beings and navigated according to a “seamanlike” assessment of specific situations. While part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires all ships to be “in charge of a master and officers who possess appropriate qualifications”.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which sets the standards for international waters, has begun a scoping exercise to explore these issues. The European Union’s MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks) project is also assessing the technical, economic and legal feasibility of operating an uncrewed merchant vessel autonomously during an open-sea voyage. But at present the technology behind automated ships is clearly running far ahead of regulations governing its use.

There are also concerns about the potential damage that could be done by a hacked automated vessel, though Vikram says the industry takes the issue “very seriously”, and that work is underway to define the different levels of autonomy and develop methods to mitigate their associated cyber risks.

Further questions around how an automated ship would respond to another vessel in distress, or what would happen in the event of a total system failure, also need to be addressed. All this means that for the time being automated ships like the Yara Birkeland will be restricted to domestic waters. But given how much work is being done on to make automated ships a reality, and the potential cost savings and environmental benefits, they’re likely to reach the open sea sooner than you might think.

About the author
Duncan Jefferies
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Duncan Jefferies is a freelance writer specialising in digital culture, technology and innovation. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, How We Get To Next and many other publications.

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Science and technology are the principal drivers of human progress. The creation of technology is hindered by many problems including cost, access to expertise, counter productive attitudes to risk, and lack of iterative multi-disciplinary collaboration. We believe that the failure of technology to properly empower organisations is due to a misunderstanding of the nature of the software creation process, and a mismatch between that process and the organisational structures that often surround it.