Crew not required – what happens when we don’t need humans on ships?
Rolls Royce Marine, in collaboration with a number of Finland’s top academic researchers and leading members of the maritime cluster, has started on the development of fully autonomous remote controlled ships. This collaboration is known as the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) Initiative. The 6.6 million Euro project brings together universities, ship designers, equipment manufacturers and classification societies to explore the economic, social, legal, regulatory and technical factors which need to be addressed to make autonomous ships a reality.
Autonomous applications in the shipping and cargo handling industry are already widely used, such as driverless straddle carriers, automated stacking cranes, remote controlled ship to shore cranes and automated guided vehicles. Spurring on these innovations is the drive to reduce labour costs and to make the interaction between heavy equipment and humans safer. Moreover, recent trials with autonomous cars and trucks have been relatively successful albeit mostly under controlled conditions
Whilst the thought of crewless ships such as chemical tankers, cruise vessels and large oil tankers will strike fear in the general population, one only has to realise that these days most passenger jets fly (and sometimes land) predominantly on autopilot whilst being guided by traffic controllers sitting in control rooms with massive amounts of data at their fingertips.
Whilst the issues to be overcome for autonomous shipping are largely social (similar to autonomous vehicles) the business side has to stack up as well. Marine industry players will focus on issues such as cost (less labour, more space for cargo), efficiency and safety gains.
Business models involving autonomous ships need to deliver commercially viable applications as well as currently untried engineering concepts, acceptable to both the shipping industry and the general public. This will involve shipyards, ship owners, ship operators, ports and cargo owners. Shipping is a tough business and operates in a challenging environment; equipment required for the autonomous operation of ships might work well on land but might be unsuitable for application on board ocean-going vessels.
AAWA hopes to complete the research by the end of 2017. They will use simulations as well as tests at sea on board a FinFerries vessel which operates between islands off the Finnish coast. They hope to have a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.
The maritime industry is known for its conservative nature and its resistance to change, so having an autonomous vessel in commercial use by the end of the decade might be optimistic. The big challenge will be whether there is societal acceptance and preparedness in the maritime community and beyond to make the changes necessary to accommodate unmanned ships.
Having crewless ships operating on the Australian coast would certainly change the landscape for coastal shipping. This issue was discussed at a recent forum of lawyers and marine professionals at the offices of a law firm in Sydney but might not come in time to halt the demise of Australian flagged ships altogether.
Peter van Duyn – Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics (Deakin University)
This article appeared in Lloyd’s List Australia.