Unmanned vessels – can they become reality?

New technology is transforming businesses and maritime industry might be facing one of it’s most dramatic changes in coming decades once unmanned ships start sailing the seas.

Why should ships operate autonomously?

Cargo vessels are nothing more than vehicles to transport goods from place A to place B. Within business like this, space on board equals more cargo, and more cargo means more money. Crew quarters and passages require a lot of space on board the ship that could be used as valuable cargo space. Another result of removing the crew would be that cargo ships could be operated optimally without worrying how the crew is able to handle stress and long passages over the oceans. Slow steaming has been the resent trend in cargo shipping, causing the already long intercontinental passages to extend to even longer. This is very challenging environment for the crew to stay focused and motivated. These concerns would not be relevant for unmanned ships, they would simply perform. Third aspect benefiting unmanned vessels would be pirates. The single greatest reason for pirate activity is ransoms paid for hostages. No crew, no hostages and no ransoms and extremely costly insurances to be paid for the operator.

Where are we today?

Technology to build vessel with certain level of autonomy exists. There are no technology barriers to build a vessel which could sail from one place to another without crew on board. Showstopper is regulations and deep concerns of implications of having ghost ships sailing on all seven seas. One of the biggest projects to explore this frontier is MUNIN. Project is funded by European Commission and it’s aim is to “develop and verify a concept for an autonomous ship, which is defined as a vessel primarily guided by automated on-board decision systems but controlled by a remote operator in a shore side control station“. Rolls-Royce and especially their Blue Ocean Team has been one of the boldest to promote unmanned ships. Oskar Levander, VP of the Blue Ocean Team, is already stating that “The time is now ripe for a fundamental change in shipping“. Wärtsilä has not been as bold on its marketing and PR but Wärtsilä’s automation system is already capable for handling alarms for unmanned machinery and the system is capable for remote diagnostics. Wärtsilä Remote Monitoring and Assistance System, RMS, makes it possible for Wärtsilä employees to assist the crew in fault finding and corrections. Possible rectification will normally not be performed from remote (even though this is possible), but the crew can be guided to perform these.

Risks?

Unmanned vessels would be exposed for entirely new threats. Poorly written code could cause 300 m long container vessel drift helplessly in the middle of Atlantic. Unmanned vessels could become a target for smugglers as a mean to transport illegal goods and even refugees over the seas. If solar storm causes weak satellite connection from unmanned ship to land based operation center resulting the vessel to collide or ground who is to blame?

Future?

Considering all the possibilities and risks it will be interesting to see what kind of business models will evolve in the future and who will be the players to benefit the changes. Will we see new players making a perhaps disruptive entrance to the market like Google, Amazon or Alibaba? How will the trade routes change if ships would sail over oceans without crew and what would become the competence center and hub for the remote operations?

Big uncertainties create big opportunities. How do you see the shipping evolve and what benefits and risks do you foresee?

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