Automated Shipping: Full Speed Ahead, but Challenges Remain

September 20, 2018

The maritime industry is making progress toward automated shipping, but much of that progress has been limited to small, shoreside applications and significant hurdles remain in the development of unmanned ships.

At a hearing last week of the Senate Commerce Committee examining emerging technologies in transportation, Davis Sanford, Campaigns Lead, Naval Ship Intelligence & Technologies at Rolls-Royce Marine North America described the advancements that Rolls-Royce and others have made in autonomous shipping.

Last year, Rolls-Royce teamed up with global towage operator Svitzer to unveil the Svitzer Hermod, a 92-foot tugboat equipped with Rolls-Royce’s Dynamic Positioning System. The tug made several remotely controlled maneuvers in Copenhagen harbor, including berthing alongside the quay, undocking, turning 360 degrees, and piloting back to Svitzer’s headquarters. While these moves were remotely controlled shoreside, there was also a captain and crew onboard in case of system failure.

That’s not all Rolls-Royce has been doing lately in the automated shipping space. The company is also studying automatic mooring technology to convey a mooring line from a tug to a ship through remote operations, one of the key elements holding back the development of unmanned tugs. It also has a concept for a robotic crane that can be used for docking and line removal without human assistance.

Nor is Rolls-Royce the only company developing automated shipping technologies. The Norwegian-built Yara Birkeland is expected to become the world’s first fully autonomous container ship in 2020. And UK-based Automated Ships Ltd is working with Kongsberg Maritime of Norway to develop Hrönn, a fully automated utility ship that will serve the offshore energy and fish-farming industries.

Most of the progress toward ship automation has been made in Europe; Mr. Sanford said that Nordic countries are “investing heavily as a way to reboot and support their maritime industry that’s seen a decline.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) pointed out that some research is being done in the United States; he pointed to the marine autonomy research site (MARS), a collaboration between Michigan Technological University and the Smart Ships Coalition to study and set ground rules for the use of autonomous marine vehicles on the Great Lakes.

Ship automation can have benefits

Mr. Sanford spelled out two types of ship autonomy: bridge autonomy, which reduces or replaces activities performed by deck officers (such as voyage planning, navigation, situational awareness, and communications); and ship system autonomy, which reduces or replaces activities completed by a vessel’s marine engineers (those having to do with engines, generators, and auxiliary systems, for example).

Taken together, Mr. Sanford said this automation will make shipping safer, more efficient, and less expensive. Safer, because more than 70 percent of marine accidents are the result of human error or interference; more efficient, because less space for human crews means more space for cargo; and less expensive, because the improved vessel efficiency, reliability, and availability could lead to a 20 percent total transportation cost reduction, according to Rolls-Royce projections.

However, several challenges stymie progress

One of the main barriers for autonomous ship development, Mr. Sanford said, was outdated regulation at the national and international level. He said it can be difficult for companies to find a test environment in U.S. waters – “there’s nowhere companies can test that in the U.S.” Companies must work with the U.S. Coast Guard to get permission to test unmanned ships, as the Coast Guard otherwise has manning requirements that were established long before the development of current technologies.

Internationally, there are other old regulations that seem to disqualify unmanned ships. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires ships to have a lookout; as Mr. Sanford said, there’s “no rule that allows you to supplement that person with a video camera… or allow an autonomous ship to monitor itself.” The IMO also has safety at sea requirements which stipulate that when a distressed ship signal goes out, the closest ship must respond. As Mr. Sanford asked, “How do you handle that with an unmanned ship that doesn’t have a crew onboard to help a distressed ship?”

The IMO has already started considering how existing international regulations should be applied to the emerging field of self-driving ships, but it is not clear whether and how quickly those rules might be made more flexible.

There are also labor implications for unmanned ships that may make ship automation politically unpalatable. Several senators asked Mr. Sanford about job displacement. He conceded that the emergence of self-driving ships “will displace able seamen who typically maintain a ship while at sea. Ships will still have to be maintained, but those jobs will be brought shoreside, with ships able to forecast where maintenance will be needed.” There will be new jobs – those controlling the ships remotely and other staff at those shoreside operation centers – but in addition to job shifting, there maybe job loss as well.

Mr. Sanford listed other challenges that need to be confronted if the U.S. wants to be a leader in unmanned shipping, such as export controls (companies are worried that their technologies will be export-controlled and they won’t be able to sell it globally), insurance (right now companies cannot get insurance for unmanned ships being tested in U.S. waters), and getting the communication bandwidth for all of the information that needs to be sent from the shoreside operating centers to the ships at sea.

“Emerging risks,” like the threat of cyber attacks and the boarding of unknown entities, will remain. Mr. Sanford said the “biggest concern” would be if a third party gained control of an autonomous ship and entered U.S. waters. He said cybersecurity features are built into Rolls-Royce’s systems so that the ship is “constantly monitoring itself.” And once the ship enters U.S. waters, control will be turned over to someone near the port of call to ensure it is being controlled by someone local.

One challenge Mr. Sanford did not mention but will nevertheless prove difficult to overcome is the challenge of mid-sea ship failure. According to an Eno interview with someone in the shipping industry, a container ship on a six to eight day voyage will likely need something repaired while at sea, and helicopter range is not long enough to bring crew members to a ship in the middle of the ocean. Companies working toward ship automation will need to figure out a plan for those eventualities: while Mr. Sanford said an autonomous ship will be able to forecast when regular maintenance will be needed, not everything can be anticipated.

Automated shipping promises several benefits, including safer shipping and lower costs for shippers. However, while some companies are bullish on when autonomous ships will be available commercially, many obstacles will need to be overcome before those promises are made reality.

Photo courtesy of Rolls-Royce.

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