In Depth: Unmanned Ships – Are We There Yet?

The development of the remote and autonomous (R&A) shipping has become one of the hottest topics in the industry over the past couple of years.

The maritime industry has seen an ever growing number of stakeholders assuming an active role in the development of technological solutions that aim to bolster security and bring cost efficiency for ship owners by fine-tuning onboard systems for autonomous operation.

The integration of unmanned ships is not expected to be “smooth sailing”, taking into account that some of the key industry majors are skeptical about allowing ultra large containerships, tankers or cruise ships to sail without a crew on board.

Nevertheless, there are various sectors that are expected to be early adopters of the trend, one of them being workboats.

World Maritime News met up with Oskar Levander, Senior Vice President of Concepts and Innovation, Digital & Systems of Rolls-Royce, one year after our previous interview, to see what is the current state of play with regard to the development of autonomous ships. Mr. Levander will be speaking at Asia Pacific Maritime 2018 conference, which takes place 14-16 March 2018.

Commenting on the major breakthroughs in autonomous shipping for Rolls-Royce since our interview in April 2017, Levander pointed to the demonstration of the first remotely controlled commercial vessel carried out in cooperation with Svitzer in Denmark.

“We showcased how we can safely operate a tug (the Svitzer Hermod) from a remote-control station location in the Svitzer office. This is a major step on the road towards R&A shipping,” Levander said.

“Another recent step is the release of our Intelligent Awareness system. This is a spin-off product from the development of R&A ship technology that has the potential to benefit all existing ships. It can enhance the captain’s awareness of what is happening around his or her vessel by fusing together the information from different sensors, such as camera, radar, AIS and LIDAR, and by applying intelligent object detection. This will greatly improve the safety of ship operation.”

What types of ships will go crewless?

The ongoing push toward automation of ships is not likely to result in crewless containerships anytime soon, according to Mr. Soren Skou, the CEO of the world’s largest container shipping company, Maersk Line.

Skou believes that giant containerships would not be allowed to sail without humans on board, mainly because there would be no driver of efficiency behind such a move.

Commenting on the matter, Levander supported the view, saying that ultra large container vessels (ULCV) will most likely not be unmanned in the near to mid-term future.

“The benefit of unmanned operation is quite different for different ship segments and ships of different size. The potential economic saving by going for unmanned operation in an ultra large container vessel is quite marginal, only a few percents. Crewing cost represents only a couple of percent of the total cost structure for a ULCV and the potential fuel savings by removing deckhouse and systems serving the people are also small compared to the consumption. So the economic incentive is not as strong to make these giant vessels unmanned,” he explained.

However, the situation is completely different for smaller container vessels or other cargo vessels.

According to Levander, for a smaller containership, general cargo vessel or a bulker, the total transport cost saving can be 10-22 pct by switching to unmanned operation, so there is a clear economic driver for R&A ships.

For the purpose of reference, a 20 pct transport cost saving is the same or more than cutting fuel consumption by 50 pct.

“One should keep in mind, that these ULCV represent only a very small number of the total fleet of ships in the world. The large volume markets for cargo vessels are for bulkers, general cargo vesselsand smaller container vessels,” Levander added.

Despite the fact that ULCVs would not opt for full automation they are likely to adopt many parts of R&A technology to boost efficiency and safety, such as Intelligent Awareness systems, autonomous navigation, collision avoidance, and health management systems for all ship systems.

Tanker and cruise shipping companies are also among the sectors not supporting the unmanned shipping approach for the future. Levander agrees that cruise ships will never be unmanned.

In addition, the oil and gas sector is not likely to remove crews from tankers and LNG carriers amid risks to safe operation. But in the same way as for ULCVs, both cruise ships and tankers are expected to adopt R&A technology to make the operation safer and more efficient.

Early adopters of R&A technology are tugs and other workboats

“These are actually likely first movers for technologies such as Intelligent Awareness and collision avoidance. These are shipping segments that put a lot of focus on safety, and there is a big interest to reduce the likelihood of an accident. Knowing that most marine accidents are caused by human errors (75-95 pct) and the major parts of these errors are caused by fatigue or crew not concentrating, the potential safety improvement with automatic watch keeping and autonomous navigation solutions is very large,” Levander said.

Rolls-Royce launched its first R&A product, the Intelligent Awareness system this week at the Seatrade cruise ship convention in Ft Lauderdale, because cruise ships are one of the early potential markets.

Other early adopters of R&A technology are tugs and other workboats working in coastal waters. In addition, road ferries are also a very interesting market for near future remote and automated operation, followed by coastal cargo vessels.

 How can the owners be persuaded to invest in autonomous ships?

According to Levander, there is a high interest in the technology, therefore, there should be no problem in attracting enough customers to invest amid anticipated cost savings which could reach up to 30 pct for some ship types.

“The R&A technology open up totally new business models that are not feasible before the new technology becomes available. These models have the potential to disrupt the existing markets and players will need to adapt to stay in the game.

“What is interesting to note, is also the increasing interest from the cargo owners for R&A shipping. If the ship owners’ own customers see the potential for lower cost and new business models, it is a great indicator that the industry will move in this direction,” Levander concluded.

World Maritime News Staff;

Image Courtesy: Rolls-Royce