Shipping is moving closer to adopting unmanned ships, and catching up with other maritime industries on autonomous vessels. As can be read in the upcoming August/September issue of Marine Electronics & Communications, commercial shipping is considering the technical application of remote control of ships. There remains a significant degree of scepticism about the viability of autonomous ships. But there are several levels of autonomy to aim for and some potential commercial applications – especially for repetitive operations and where there is little risk of pollution.
Many of the technologies that would enable ships to be unmanned are already available, and in some cases used in shipping. Other technical leaps have been achieved in different maritime sectors. As the technology is steadily being tested by ventures such as the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) initiative, the barriers to developing unmanned ships are coming down. It is up to regulators and classification to catch up with the technology advances.
Remote controlled ship concepts Image courtesy: Rolls-Royce
This is why Lloyd’s Register’s (LR’s) development of rules for classing autonomous ships is welcomed. LR has set out what is required to class an autonomous ship in its ShipRight design assessment procedure guide. This guidance will help transform autonomous shipping from a theoretical possibility to a practical reality.
LR has proposed six autonomy levels (ALs) for shipping, depending on the technology, systems and operating procedures involved. These should provide clarity to shipping stakeholders about the specific requirements of different automation strategies. These range from AL1 for ships with data collated for onboard decision making, through to AL6 which denotes a fully autonomous ship with no access required during a mission. These should help designers, shipbuilders, equipment manufacturers, and shipowners to accurately specify the desired level of autonomy in designing the ship and for ongoing operations and maintenance.
For ships under the AL1 and AL2 classifications, all actions would be taken by a human operator but there would be decision support from shore. This is already in place with some leading shipowners. For example, K-Line has developed an integrated vessel operation and performance management system that includes analysis and real-time remote monitoring and decision support.
On LR’s AL3 and A4 ships, humans would be present but only in supervisory roles – going beyond autopilot operations. But AL5 and AL6 ships would be fully autonomous, with decisions actioned with no human supervision. These types of ship are being examined by AAWA, which includes DNV GL, Rolls-Royce, Inmarsat, Napa and Deltamarin. The project also has the support of operators – Finferries and ESL Shipping – so it is likely that by 2020 there will be an autonomous ferry operating between islands in Europe. Whether there will be unmanned cargo ships, tankers or other ship types remains to be seen.
Other maritime sectors are using autonomous technology for research and defence vessels, albeit on a smaller scale. For example, AutoNaut is about to produce several autonomous vessels for different applications. This follows investment by Seiche Group. These vessels will be used for the offshore oil and gas, civil engineering, research and science, security and surveillance sectors.
Given the technical advances made in recent years, there is momentum behind the development of autonomous ships. It seems almost certain that – sceptics notwithstanding –autonomous ships are coming and will have a transformative effect on the industry.