Two Norwegian firms, Kongsberg Maritime, a maritime engineering company and Yara International, a chemical company, announced this week that they are partnering to develop the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship. The vessel is named YARA Birkeland and will operate as a manned vessel in 2018, transition to remote operation in 2019 and finally in 2020 be capable of fully autonomous operations.
The specific objective for this autonomous container vessel is to transport chemicals and fertilizer from Yara’s Prosgrunn production plant in the north to Brevik shipping terminal in the south. In doing so it removes 40,000 truck journeys a year with the attendant reduction in NOx and CO2 emissions.
Autonomous Shipping Is the Future of the Maritime Industry
Yara and Kongsberg are not alone in envisioning autonomous ships. Rolls-Royce Marine President Mikael Mäkinen stated
“Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smart phone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations.”
Rolls-Royce are leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AA WA) initiative based in Finland.
“It brings together universities, ship designers, equipment manufacturers, and classification societies to explore the economic, social, legal, regulatory and technological factors, which need to be addressed to make autonomous ships a reality.”
Rolls-Royce envisage a remotely operated local vessel in operation by 2020 which falls into line with Yara and Kongsberg’s projections.
The Benefits of Autonomous Maritime Vessels
The drive to build autonomous smart vessels parallels in part the same drive to build autonomous air and road vehicles. Unmanned vehicles are much safer. Allianz, a German insurance company, reports that between 75% and 96% of Marine accidents are as a result of human error. So if there are no humans aboard there will be no human caused accidents or injuries to crew members.
Unmanned vessels will also be a lot more efficient with a larger cargo. With no crew to accommodate working, sleeping, eating and recreation areas can all be eliminated. The ship design will therefore be lighter and sleeker with reduced fuel consumption, construction and operating costs.
Piracy becomes a much lesser risk because there are no captain or crew aboard to hold hostage. If the ship itself is not designed for crew mobility Pirates will find it very difficult indeed to get around the ship or gain access to the controls.
Finding crewmembers with the skill set to operate and maintain increasingly complex mechanical and electronic maritime systems is also becoming increasingly difficult. In March last year the head of the US Maritime Administration, Paul Jaenichen, said that the United States could need as many as 70,000 new sailors for the nation’s maritime fleet by 2022. However the Merchant Marine Academy and the six state Maritime Academy’s only graduate 900 per year, and all of them are at full capacity. The math simply does not add up so the introduction of unmanned maritime vessels could be very timely.
The Challenge Is Not Technology but Regulatory
But as in the case of commercial drones and autonomous trucks the main challenge for commercial unmanned ships is not technology development, but regulatory. How are the vessels to be permitted, how are they insured and who has legal liability in the case of an accident?
The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the arm of the United Nations overseeing global shipping, prohibits ship operations without crew. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, known as Solas, requires all ships to be “sufficiently and efficiently manned.”
“IMO spokeswoman Natasha Brown said the British government–sponsored Marine Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group, set up in 2014, is reviewing pertinent regulations to potentially propose changes.”
“James Fanshawe, chairman of the working group, said it hopes to convince the international organization to pave the way for autonomous vessels before the end of the decade.”
2020 seems to be the magic year. The regulatory framework should be in place, Yara and Kongsberg plan to launch their first commercial autonomous container vessel and Rolls-Royce plan to launch their remotely controlled coastal vessel. If these goals are met then commercial seagoing autonomous vessels will become a reality sooner than their air and road counterparts.
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