Maritime autonomy: A bridge too far

What is the difference between autonomous shipping and automated shipping? Well, the lines between the two terms are blurring fast but it is prudent to know that autonomy will bring a sea change to the global maritime sector and it is automation that will enable it.

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Imagine several ships en route from departure port ‘A’ to arrive at different ports around the world, each at a given time. These ships have no captain or crew on board and can navigate, dock, load, unload and refuel on their own and are maintained by sensors, robots and drones. The ships are navigated and controlled by computers from a fully automated port with no human intervention or interaction. The operating system of each vessel makes decisions and takes actions based on the situation it is in. That’s ‘autonomous shipping’ and it is very different from automated ships.

“The difference between the two is dictated by the degree of human intervention. An automated vessel does not have the level of intelligence or independence that an autonomous one has. The range between manual – automated – autonomous tends to be a sliding scale of different capabilities of man vs machine. Autonomous is on the side where the vessel makes sufficiently complex decisions on its own and has zero human intervention,”explains Melvin Mathews, Director – New Businesses, Wärtsilä.


Redefining ‘shipshape’

In May last year, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) defined a ‘Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS)’ as a ship, which to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction. It enlisted several non-hierarchical degrees of autonomy that a ship could have for the duration of a single voyage as:

a) Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated.

b) Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location, but seafarers are on board.

c) Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.

d) Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

“Autonomous shipping will continue to evolve over the next 15–30 years. In the future, ship traffic control will move to the shore and a standardised framework very similar to what we have in aviation today will likely be established. This level of co-ordination will be needed in maritime. Planes are almost fully controlled by auto-pilot and in this sense, they are autonomous despite the fact that they still have crew on board to balance the risks in emergency cases. We cannot fully eliminate the human factor at sea, that’s not the objective either, but I do foresee a similar future for shipping,” says Vladimir Ponomarev, Vice President Solutions at Wärtsilä Voyage.

“The way how the fleet will be operated will be different. Operations of autonomous ships will be located in the fleet management office and there will be few people depending on the size of the fleet who will take decision. They will be required to navigate through a lot of data. The major difference will be in the level of responsibility of ships. Today one man is responsible for one ship, in the future one man will be responsible for 100s of ships,” he elaborates.

Man vs machine

BIMCO, the world’s largest international shipping association is of the view that so far there hasn’t been a realistic business case for autonomous ships because the cost of building an autonomous ship is far more expensive when compared with traditional shipping. It believes that Seafarers have an important monitoring role as far as power supply and engines are concerned and replacing them with condition monitoring sensors, that have so far not been very reliable, may not be the best idea.

Aron Sorensen, Head of Maritime Technology and Regulation, BIMCO says,

“Even with the most advanced automation, technical approach to shipping, complete redundancy, and back up from ashore it is difficult to envisage how all the operational and maintenance duties currently carried out by crew can be solved. Many examples could be mentioned: Sensors that detect flooding can for example start pumps automatically, but how will the systems be able to find the cause of the water ingress and stop the leak?”

BIMCO states, ‘fully autonomous (unmanned) ships in international voyages will take a long time to become a reality. Apart from the fact that new technology is needed and there needs to be a business case, other challenges are lack of regulation, insurance, and market acceptance. We have already seen projects of unmanned ships being planned in national waters, however, as these so far have been heavily subsidised, it is not clear if they build on a viable business case’.

Sailing towards autopilot

Despite the fact that autonomous shipping could become a reality only in the distant future many shipping companies, technology start-ups and ports have begun sailing towards it. For instance, Wärtsilä is exploring remote control ships and autonomous ships via integration with a port system, a navigation & control system and a fleet operation system to help automate decision making for the ship. The company has also tied up with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore to promote maritime technologies and test an advanced intelligent manoeuvring system to avoid collisions based on computerised logic.

“Autonomous ships will first appear where there is a significant risk to human life at places where using robots is safer than using human beings. And then it will come to areas where it is easier to control operations and ensure safety of traffic like coast-to-shore navigation, ferries sailing on pre-defined routes and small cargo ships operating on cargo terminals. Ship management companies using autonomous ships will also be using their own terminals and ports,” explains Ponomarev.

Experts say that even though the divide between ‘automation’ and ‘autonomous’ is gradually shrinking, by their very nature the two terms cannot be considered one and the same. This means that we are in the age of accelerated automation but we are several years away from autonomous shipping in its purest form.

Originally published here