Autonomous ships navigating uncharted waters


The Suzakua 95-meter, 749-metric-ton container ship, completed a 490-mile round trip between Tokyo Bay and the port of Matsusaka in the city of Tsu on February 26.

There was nothing extraordinary about this trip, except perhaps the fact that the Suzaku had no crew.

Seismic changes

The Nippon Foundation, which deployed the ship, said Suzaku operated under a fully autonomous navigation system, including remote operation from the Fleet Operations Center in Chiba Prefecture.

The group said operating ships remotely from land can solve problems such as crew shortages, aging crews and reduced accidents. The demonstration also shows how far ships have come since the days when sailors used the stars to find their way home.

The industry is facing seismic change as it increases technology while seeking to reduce carbon emissions.

“Reduced crew levels through the increased use of better systems as well as autonomous systems have been taking place for a number of years and in recent years more ambitious developments have started to take place,” said Stephen Turnock , head of department at the University of Southampton. . “Initially on small ships, but increasingly on a large scale.”

“More Electric”

Turnock quoted Ocean Infinity, a marine robotics company, as saying in May that it had successfully launched its first 78-meter Amarda ship in Vietnam. The company said it was the first of 23 low-emission, crew-optional robotic ships.

About 80% of the volume of international trade in goods is transported by sea and the percentage is even higher for most developing countries, so the economic importance of maritime transport cannot be underestimated.

The shipping industry also accounts for around 3% of global carbon emissions.

Andrew Alleyne, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering, said while the industry is making great strides in electrification, very few long-haul freighters will be electric.

“There’s not the battery energy density to support that,” he said. “They will probably be ‘more electric’. That is, there will be a power-generating device, or devices, like a large generator that distributes power around the ship to thrusters, communications , refrigeration, etc. It will be a small floating microgrid.

“No quick fix”

Last year the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents 80% of the global shipping industry, submitted plans to the International Maritime Organization detailing steps the group said governments must take to help industry achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

“There’s no one magic bullet here,” said Guy Platten, the chamber’s general secretary. “It will be a multi-faceted approach, but there is no doubt that electric-powered vessels have their place.”

Platten said there are currently electric-powered vessels in service, but these are usually short-range vessels like ferries. He noted that there are other carbon-free fuel sources, such as ammonia, hydrogen and methanol.

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“We are confident that we can achieve a net zero position by 2050, but it takes a number of things to make it work,” he said, including research and development, fuel availability and “a kind of carrot and stick”. “incentive to close the gap between zero-carbon fuels that are currently more expensive to produce than fossil fuels.

Changes in the workplace

Autonomous ships open up a whole new set of possibilities and challenges.

“There’s been more autonomy in ships over the years,” Platten said, “but I think we’re a long way from seeing fully autonomous ships actually operating commercially.”

More technology will also mean fewer and different types of jobs. The AFL-CIO Maritime Trades Department recently approved a resolution regarding the issue of automation and the workplace.

“Unions have been addressing and adapting to changes in the workplace – including the displacement of jobs caused by automation and digitalization – for more than a century,” the group said. “But, too often, technological advances are used as a cover by the rich and powerful to concentrate their wealth and turn good family jobs into precarious, low-paying or precarious jobs.”

And there are the dangers of hacking as hackers move from the blue of the ocean to the dark web.

Rush to adopt technology

The shipping industry – among others – was hit in 2017 when Maersk, the world’s largest container company, reportedly spent over $300 million on repairs and recovery after the NotPetya cyberattack.

“There’s all this excitement about autonomous ships, but people are rushing to adopt this technology without fully realizing the implications it will have for safety and security,” said Rick Tiene, vice president of Mission. Secure, a cybersecurity company headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Tiene warned that there is less ability to notice and manually override a problem in a standalone situation.

As companies work to make a ship autonomous, he said, “you’ll probably upgrade the last remnants of non-automated processes that are on that ship, but as you increase automation, you also create more potential cyber risk surfaces”.

“It’s a market that operates on extremely tight margins,” Tiene said. “We spoke to some companies that don’t recognize the value or the need for cybersecurity, but we spoke to many people who said, “we want to do this.”

“A Human in the Loop”

So, will we ever see the day when massive ships operate without humans on board?

Turnock of the University of Southampton said this could happen on smaller, less valuable ships, but when it comes to larger ships there will likely still be specific roles that cannot be landed or replaced. .

“The crewing requirements of ships of the future are likely to change significantly,” he said. “There is a shortage of skilled crew as fewer people are willing to sacrifice long periods away from friends and family. Autonomous systems can improve work requirements for those left on board.”

“I think there will always be a desire to have a human in the loop,” said Alleyne of the University of Minnesota. “Things can go wrong on a ship that is not planned. So it’s always good to have someone on board. Even if it’s not for navigation, then for subsystem maintenance.”

The technology exists to do this now under nominal conditions, he added, “it’s only the rare unforeseen events that cause concern.”


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