From the earliest times, humans have been exploring and navigating the seas. The vessels may have changed over time, but the presence of human beings to keep watch on bridge and make key decisions about the voyage has been a constant. That, however, is set to change as smart computers enable a shift to fully autonomous shipping.
Many ships already deploy a high degree of automation to enable safer navigation and more efficient fuel consumption. Yet it is only in the last decade that artificial intelligence, machine learning and cognitive computing technologies have developed to a point where it is now possible to remove humans from the bridge.
These are the same technologies that the likes of Google are deploying on land: driverless cars are already being piloted on our roads, although a series of accidents in the US has raised questions about the pace of change. Autonomous ships could face less of a technological barrier: after all, in theory the open seas present fewer hazards than our congested roads.
Many cars now deploy assisted driver systems that automate many decisions that were previously the preserve of the driver, from parking to emergency braking. But crucially, these vehicles still require a driver to be present and alert to road conditions – and it will be the same for automated ships.
“Autonomous doesn’t mean unmanned,” says Captain Eero Lehtovaara, head of regulatory and public affairs at ABB Marine & Ports, which has created the concept of ‘Bridge Zero’ to enable more efficient utilisation of vessel crew, reducing fatigue and increasing safety by enabling an unmanned bridge in certain conditions.
“Bridge Zero is not about unmanned shipping, but rather using digital and connected technology to enhance crew performance and optimise the human presence on board.”
Bridge Zero is possible now but there are barriers that limit its adoption for deep-sea shipping in the near term. These include regulation, network connectivity and the rigours of ship maintenance.
Automation will gain real traction among vessels that use low-maintenance fully electric propulsion systems and can be supported remotely or by ad hoc visits from a service crew.
“As far as we can see, today, a two-stroke engine cannot be left completely unattended for longer periods of time,” says Lehtovaara.
Regulation is another roadblock. “IMO regulations need to catch up with fast-moving technology – and that’s going to take time,” says Pia Meling of Massterly, a joint venture between Kongsberg and Wilhelmsen.
“It’s one reason why it’s easier to launch autonomous solutions in just one country’s waters – or maybe two if they can reach a bilateral agreement on rules.”
And then there’s the issue of network connectivity. “Autonomous ships can run on 4G/5G networks close to shore that deliver the high throughput data flow at lower cost than the satellite-based solutions required to deliver the necessary connectivity out at sea,” says Meling.
A number of factors are prompting first-movers to invest big sums in autonomous solutions – cost, safety and the environment. The bottom-line benefits are most easily quantified in short-sea shipping, where crew costs can account for up to 50% of operational costs and there’s scope to deliver real efficiency gains, particularly for ships, such as RoPax ferries, that have routine schedules and call at a limited number of ports.
“That repetitive pattern makes it easier to standardise and model their operations,” explains Meling. “We can collect all that data and use it to build mathematical models and optimise the route to make it safer and more efficient. Auto-docking, for example, can save 20% on fuel, and the time to dock can be reduced by two minutes per docking operation. This doesn’t sound a lot, but with many daily port calls, it will give valuable time to recharge batteries and transfer passengers/cargo.
These gains can make shipping cost competitive with trucks, delivering real environmental benefits. Norwegian grocery distributor ASKO, for example, is looking to build at least two fully electric autonomous roll-on/roll-off vessels to ferry their cargo from one side of the Oslofjord to the other – a move that could save two million truck kilometres and 5,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.
Norwegian agri-chemical supplier Yara is also looking to make the shift from road to sea. It is working with Kongsberg on the world’s first autonomous and electric container vessel, with a view to replacing 40,000 truck journeys a year. Yara Birkeland, built by shipbuilder Vard in Norway under a contract worth NOK 250 million (£21 million), will be launched this year, with the vessel gradually moving from manned operation to fully autonomous operation by 2022.
And it’s not just freight that is being moved by smart ships. In November 2018, ice-class passenger ferry Suomenlinna II was remotely piloted through a test area near Helsinki harbour, a world first for an existing passenger ferry.
The ship was retrofitted with ABB’s new dynamic positioning system, ABB Ability Marine Pilot Control, and steered from a control centre in Helsinki, demonstrating that automated solutions don’t require investment in expensive new builds and that human oversight of vessels from anywhere is achievable with today’s technologies.
Support vessels are also getting the autonomous treatment. In October 2019, ABB, in collaboration with Keppel Marine & Deepwater Technology, signed a contract to retrofit a 32m harbour tugboat to enable autonomous vessel operations in the Port of Singapore by the end of 2020. During the initial phase, the vessel will complete a series of navigational tasks in a designated test area in the Port of Singapore, steered from an onshore control centre. The second phase of the project will see the vessel perform autonomous collision-avoidance tasks while under remote supervision.
Tugs often have to do long transits to get to their destination and then undertake very challenging work in crowded harbours.
“Performing the transit autonomously and under remote supervision would enable the on-board crew to rest and be alert when they are needed in the actual work of the tug,” says Lehtovaara.
Automation will also make tug operations much more efficient.
“Tugboats are only in operation between 12% and 40% of the time and they are mainly on standby,” notes Meling. “If they are remote- controlled or autonomous that would deliver a better level of service at a lower cost.”
This marine autonomy isn’t happening in a vacuum. This is part of a wider trend across many aspects of our interconnected societies. It makes sense, therefore, for marine businesses to work hand-in-hand with other industries
to make the most of these transformative opportunities.
“It’s not just about the vessel,” says Meling. “A vessel is just part of the mission of delivering something from A to B and we need to have seamless information flows between the land logistics and the sea logistics if this is to work. There’s no reason why in the future we couldn’t have the same unit coordinating both sea and land logistics and keeping track of everything, from the ship to the last-mile distribution.”
Impact on jobs
It’s impossible to talk about automation without discussing the impact on jobs. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, there are currently 1.6m seafarers serving on merchant ships around the world – what role for them when robots rule the waves?
“In a highly automated future some roles will disappear but others will be created,” says Meling. “With the introduction of unmanned short-sea vessels, for example, a captain or chief engineer may be shore-based and each person may be responsible for three ships at once. This opens up new ways of organising work, which means the job will be less physically hazardous, have a better work environment and offer normal working hours. We would be able to recruit new kinds of people to such a job as well, people who are currently under-represented, such as women or those with reduced mobility.”
Lehtovaara agrees with this assessment, arguing that in the future the job will make better use of human skills, eliminating the boredom and fatigue of keeping watch on bridge. The technology would detect the presence of unexpected elements in the waters. It doesn’t need to identify what the element is – it simply needs to raise the alarm and get the humans on the bridge to assess the situation and determine which actions are required.
“What we are looking at here is coexistence and cooperation between machine and man,” he says. “Let the machines do what they do best, and let humans do what they do best, which is assessing situations based on experience – and then combine the two in the best possible way.”
This report was originally published in Marine Professional March/April 2020
Author: Amy McLellan