Ready for launch: Unmanned ships coming with potential and risk

Yara Birkeland

Autonomous cars are already being tested on the streets and crewless ships will soon follow in the water. The world’s first autonomous cargo ship, to be christened Yara Birkeland, is being built for $25 million and is expected to start sailing in 2018, initially delivering fertilizer along a 37-mile route in southern Norway.

Rolls-Royce, which is working on autonomous technology in the maritime sector, envisages a remotely operated local vessel being in operation by 2020 and a remotely operated autonomous vessel in international waters by 2025. Fully autonomous unmanned oceangoing ships could be implemented around 2035, according to the company.

In Japan, shipping companies are working with shipbuilders to develop self-piloting cargo ships, which could also be in service by 2025. In the Baltic Sea, the One Sea Ecosystem project, founded in 2016, is aiming to enable fully remote-controlled vessels in three years and to achieve autonomous commercial maritime traffic by 2025. On a smaller scale, one of the most ambitious timelines involves an effort by Automated Ships and Kongsberg Maritime to build Hronn, the first unmanned and fully automated offshore supply vessel, and have it on the water in 2018.

Clearly, the technology behind such vessels is developing rapidly, including advances that will allow ships to be controlled remotely or operate autonomously. This could enable ships to monitor their own health and the environment around them, potentially making decisions based on that information. Indeed, the potential use of automation goes well beyond the vessels themselves, stretching the entire length of the cargo movement chain.

Autonomous technology has the potential to revolutionize the movement of cargo on a scale not seen since containerization was introduced some 50 years ago.

Autonomous benefits
There are many potential benefits to be gained from autonomous shipping. Human error often plays a major role in incidents at sea, and it is estimated that 75 percent to 96 percent of marine accidents can be attributed to human error. In addition, an analysis of almost 15,000 marine liability insurance claims shows that human error is behind 75 percent of the value of all claims analyzed, equivalent to $1.6 billion. Given the role of human error in maritime incidents, it is assumed unmanned vessels could be safer. At the same time, the risks inherent in having a crew, such as injury or loss of life, would be significantly reduced or even eliminated.

Then there is the potential to improve both efficiency and productivity by saving on crew and fuel costs. The current shipping market, affected by a global downturn, faces various challenges. Crew costs can vary from around 10 percent to 30 percent of a shipowner’s operating expenditure (OPEX), depending on the type of vessel. An unmanned ship could free up more space for cargo in place of accommodation and crew support systems.

The introduction of designated automated shipping lanes could make logistics easier, increasing the reliability of cargo transport. It has even been suggested that automation could result in a decline in piracy incidents as there is no crew to be used as leverage for ransom. However, the piracy threat is ever evolving, and there is already evidence that pirates have been abusing holes in cybersecurity to target specific cargoes, so the cybersecurity threat could actually increase in the future.

Regulatory challenges
Autonomous shipping is likely to be phased in over time, as there are many legal and regulatory issues that need to be resolved. For example, maritime law and conventions were not drafted with crewless ships in mind and currently require vessels to have crew and a master on board. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) said recently it would start exploring how existing international regulations could be applied to autonomous ships.

Yet despite unknowns and regulatory issues, autonomous shipping will happen. It’s just a question of when and how. And it is possible that the current economic pressures on the shipping industry and the need to find efficiencies could even support and speed up developments in maritime automation.

Risk management challenges
Safety considerations will be key to the development of automation. Designers will be challenged to convince users, stakeholders, regulators and insurers that such systems are 100 percent reliable. In the future, flawless communication between autonomous ships at sea and the so-called shore control center (SCC), from where the vessels will be controlled, will obviously be crucial.

Although autonomous operation presents a number of risky “unknowns,” the maritime industry does have experience in this area. In some cases, unmanned vessels are not new, having been used for many years in scientific research operations and the defense sector, although these have involved much smaller vessels than what is proposed.

The issue of autonomous vessel operation also has been dealt with before on ships with unattended engine room operations in which the vessels were operated in a manned state and engine room alarms were logged and analyzed.

Yet the list of risk factors under consideration remains a long one. For example, only large vessels routinely have tracking devices today, raising questions about the potential for collisions between an automated ship and smaller vessels. Another challenge will be assessing the risk of an environmental disaster. Without a crew, a disaster containment response team may be hundreds of miles away.

Then there are potential issues around cargo management and safety in the absence of crew, including stability, draft and hull integrity; fire protection; and security and cyber risk, which many believe will increase. For example, if an incident occurs on an unmanned vessel, such as a spoofed GPS signal, how long will it take to discover what is happening? The cybersecurity platform has to become more robust given the large amounts of data transmitted — especially for unmanned ships.

Fully automated shipping may be possible from a technical perspective, but on a global scale it may not happen given the navigational challenges of entering ports and congested routes, as well as the challenges of operating in storm conditions. It is hard to see how vessels can operate without crews to deal with emergency situations.

It could be that automated ships, or ships controlled from the shore, will operate on local coastal routes. But for more complex transits, the journey toward automation is likely to follow the model of the aviation industry, which has gradually adopted automation even though pilots still play an important role on board by taking control during an emergency or at certain points, such as takeoffs and landings.

It remains to be seen whether the decision-making ability of computers matches that of humans. And I am not yet convinced that the technology is there to navigate difficult conditions, such as the Suez Canal or the English Channel. Autonomous technology has the potential to improve safety, but a critical element will be whether there will be sufficient backup when things go wrong.

There is talk of autonomous shipping within the next five years, but it will probably take longer for the regulatory framework to catch up. And while autonomous ships could soon operate on simplistic and fixed regional routes, autonomous shipping on a larger scale will take time.

Capt. Andrew Kinsey is a senior marine risk consultant with Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty.

By Professional Mariner Staff