A few years ago, wondering if unmanned ships were a real thing held water, but now, it’s not a question of if they will happen, but when. Oskar Levander, Vice President of Innovation, Engineering and Technology at Rolls-Royce, estimates that within the next few years the public could see a harbor tug or car ferry navigating entirely on its own – crewless. He also expects to see fully autonomous cargo ships operating internationally in 10-15 years. So yes, unmanned ships are a very real thing.
What are they?
A product of increasing digital connectivity and technological advancement, remotely controlled ships and autonomous vessels are very similar ideas. Remotely controlled ships would be piloted by people on shore and autonomous ships would take actions themselves, without human direction. Technicians would monitor and control these robotic vessels through a satellite data-link housed within an operation center anywhere in the world.
Remote controlled and autonomous vessels may look very different from the ships we see and operate currently. Recent photos released by Rolls-Royce display a sleek, almost submarine like vessel, just without the periscope. These ships can be designed with larger cargo capacities and lower wind resistance because with no crew aboard, necessities such as a deck house, crew quarters and sewage systems are eliminated.
Many interested parties.
Multiple companies and organizations around the world are racing against the clock to make autonomous vessels a reality.
- In Finland, Rolls-Royce and Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) have initiated a joint industry project hoping to launch a remotely controlled or autonomous vessel by the end of the decade.
- The EU recently launched a Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks project assessing the feasibility of operating an unmanned merchant vessel autonomously.
- China’s Maritime Safety Administration and Wuhan University of Technology have formed a joint research endeavor aimed at finding ways for autonomous ships to be used within China’s commercial and military maritime divisions.
Remotely controlled and autonomous vessels are said to be safer, more efficient and less expensive. Many researchers and proponents of this technology cite a report published by Munich-based insurance company Allianz in 2012 that says between 75% and 96% of marine accidents are a result of human error, often fatigue related. This number would be greatly reduced in the future with human error rendered obsolete. Crews wouldn’t be at risk of robbery and piracy, and instead of spending months at sea, they could be at home with their families, commuting to ports aimed at servicing incoming vessels.
Some shipping labor unions are concerned about what autonomous technology will mean for their jobs, both at sea and on land. They are also worried that as technology advances, those currently within the shipping industry won’t receive adequate training and will be left the dust. Others do think the change would improve maritime safety and as crew-related occupations fade, more highly-skilled jobs will become available.
There are many shipping regulatory challenges in the way of making autonomous vessels a reality. These regulations are unclear about when and how unmanned ships would be permitted, how they would be insured, and who would be legally liable if an accident should occur. Currently, all international shipping regulations require a crew aboard, and autonomous systems would have to meet strict rules on safety and collision avoidance.
Nevertheless, progress is being made. The Norwegian Maritime Authority and Coastal Administration have decided to allow autonomous vessel sea trials to take place in the Trondheim Fjord – now the first place in the world to become a designated testing zone.
To learn more about how companies like Rolls-Royce are overcoming technological hurdles and progressing towards unmanned ship evolution click here or check out the AAWA white paper entitled, “Remote and Autonomous Ships, The next steps.”