The Future of Autonomous Cargo Ships – HistoryInOrbit.com

The Future of Autonomous Cargo Ships

December 21, 2018 | Ryan


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As the internet connects us in ways we never thought possible, the world is beginning to feel smaller and smaller. With people and companies having access to goods and services all across the globe, the shipping industry is struggling to find new ways to keep up with the fast-paced evolution of how humanity operates…

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While we’ve seen car companies create self-driving vehicles, this new form of transportation doesn’t stop there. Shipping companies are starting to invest in automation as a way to take their industry to the next level. This makes much more sense, especially considering the difference between cars on the road and ships at sea. One being incredibly dangerous and the other having much more space to grow…

There are many challenges to overcome in this bold new direction for the industry. Companies have to make sure there’s enough value in autonomous shipping to make up for the massive investment required to develop these ships and the accompanying technology. If the reward outweighs the risk, the industry has to be ready for this shift in operation. Read ahead to learn everything you need to know about autonomous ships and when they can be expected for widespread use…

Pros and Cons of Today’s Shipping Industry

The global economy relies heavily on the shipping industry because it is the cheapest way to transport large amounts around the world. According to The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the total seaborne trade volume officially surpassed 10 billion tons in 2015, making this autonomous effort even more necessary for the future of global commerce…

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As of now, cargo ships are a cost effective but much slower form of global shipping versus planes, trains and trucks. The low operating expenses are what have allowed the industry to thrive, and it would really benefit if autonomous shipping keeps costs down. This new development could not only improve current methods and practices, but also open doors to new markets and trade opportunities…

Every year, the world’s seas are filled with thousands of manned cargo ships, which are usually specially designed for their specific tasks, often being equipped with cranes and other mechanisms to load and unload, that come in all sizes. The typically welded steel ships have a life span of around three decades. But how they’re made and how long they’ll last will also change with autonomous technology…

The Environmental Threat of Modern Cargo Ships

The current shipping industry has plenty of problems, many of which go back to its inability to incorporate advanced technology into regular operations. The gigantic industry’s growth is at risk of being stunted by a lack of innovation and an ever-growing increase in environmental damage. These issues have to be addressed moving forward…

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Modern cargo ships are requiring more and more dangerous diesel fuel, which is contributing heavily to pollution. Currently, 15 of the biggest cargo ships produce as much sulfur emissions as every car on the planet combined. Due to its low cost, many large cargo vessels are powered by bunker fuel, also known as Heavy Fuel Oil, which contains higher sulphur levels than diesel…

International standards to dramatically reduce sulphur content in marine fuels and nitrogen oxide emissions are a big reason autonomous shipping in the necessary next step for the industry. If the various requirements are enforced, the International Maritime Organization’s marine fuel requirement will mean a 90% reduction in sulphur oxide emissions, while the European Union is planning stricter controls on emissions. And apart from environmental concerns, there are other dangerous aspects of the current shipping model…

The Numbers Behind Annual Vessel Failure

With numerous vessels making their way across the world on similar and intersecting routes simultaneously, the potential for disaster is present. As more companies ship larger amounts of products and goods, the vessels are becoming too bulky to safely operate. According to a World Shipping Council survey of the world’s ocean carriers, an average of 1,390 containers have been lost at sea annually over the last few years…

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This number includes containers lost during catastrophic events, which will always be an issue for the industry. Until the shift to autonomous shipping brings new technology that can potentially reduce the risk of weather-related threats, the industry will continue to lose valuable cargo at sea. With tens of thousands of containers unaccounted for over the last decade…

The cost of these loses carries an estimated value of over $4 trillion. That being said, this is happening less and less, but the industry’s ability to adapt is severely limited by the current shipping model. As the World Shipping Council reports positive progress, companies behind autonomous shipping know their technology will help significantly. And as important as it is to consider the value of goods and products, it’s also necessary to consider…

Reducing the Crew and the Overall Cost

Companies are use to spending a lot of their money on crew members’ salaries and benefits. Reducing and potentially eliminating this is just one of the advantages of autonomous shipping. And there’s much more involved than just removing individuals from the ships. The entire design and layout would change radically without the need to maintain the vessels’ habitability. This means…

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The ships’ radical redesign will be much simpler, which leads to other savings beyond the removal of the crew. For example, the deckhouse, which sits above the deck and exists so that the crew can steer, would be unnecessary, leaving more room for actual cargo and making it much easier to load and unload, thus increasing profitability. But before the complete removal of the crew…

This change won’t happen overnight, so it’s much more likely that the first versions of these new ships will still require a crew. The initial goal will be to reduce the number of individuals, and have them there more for emergencies as opposed to more traditional positions and tasks. Between now and when robotics are advanced enough to completely replace humans, the two will have to work together…

How Human Error Factors In

Eventually, the removal of the crew will also mean less potential for human error. This eliminates the need for accident costs and insurance. When it comes to liability loss, human error makes up the overwhelming majority of how and why accidents happen. With the crew out of the way, companies can focus on two of the most dangerous phenomena that are typically encountered…

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Autonomous ships will help to reduce excessive motions of the ship that occur mainly in rough seas. Solving this problem starts with the process of planning and monitoring the routes using a numerical ship motion model. Companies have to define multiple operational scenarios that need to be avoided at all costs. These revolve around excessive accelerations and the detection of large roll motion once the journey is underway…

Those looking to make the shift to autonomous vessels are using extensive data and ship histories to develop technology that can sense changing conditions with enough reaction time to accommodate remotely located operators. Currently, those on board require less of a window, so the goal will be to tighten the censoring and adjustment time so that it can be seamless, even if no one is actually on the ship…

The Threat and Price of Seaborne Piracy

Piracy is defined as an act of robbery or criminal violence by ship or boat-borne attackers upon another ship, typically with the goal of stealing cargo and other valuable items or properties. Pirates have stalked the seas for centuries, with the earliest documented instances taking place in the 14th century BC. Piracy is one of the most common problems facing the shipping industry.

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It is especially bad in some waters, like the waters of Gibraltar, Madagascar, the Gulf of Aden, the English Channel, and the Malacca Straits, a narrow channel between Indonesia and Singapore and Malaysia. In 2004, the governments of those three nations agreed to provide better protection for the ships passing through the Straits. The waters off Somalia and Nigeria are also prone to piracy, while smaller vessels are also in danger along parts of the South American, Southeast Asian coasts and near the Caribbean Sea.

In the early 21st century, seaborne piracy against transport vessels remains a significant issue, with estimated worldwide losses of at least $16 billion per year in 2004. Pirates use a variety of vessels, weapons and methods to attack every size of cargo ships. Some of there techniques will totally shock you…

Pirates Have Even Started Hacking

When people think of pirates, they probably picture a rough group of criminals on a shaky ship armed with cheap weapons. While this is often the case, there are certainly fringe examples of how advanced pirates are becoming. The international community is facing many challenges in bringing modern pirates to justice, as these attacks often occur in international waters and beyond…

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While some use radar to avoid potential threats, as well as naval forces, armed security guards, high-pressure hoses or sound cannons to repel boarders, pirates are stepping up their game. Recently, tech-savvy pirates have turned to hacking as a new aspect of piracy. One global shipping company discovered this new technic after a series of raids that happened with more efficiency than usual…

After reaching out to a private cyber security team, the company found out the pirates had infiltrated their computer systems to access any information that would make the raids easier. This mean the pirates knew everything about the ship, crew, route, and even where to find the most valuable cargo. Autonomous shipping won’t completely eliminate the risk of piracy, but it will be able to redesign the ships to make it that much harder…

Will Autonomous Shipping Combat Piracy?

First of all, the lack of crew members gives pirates fewer options when it comes to their ability to threaten human life and/or take hostages. This would eliminate the pirates’ biggest move, as kidnapping for ransom is arguably the main driving force behind these crimes. According to the State of Maritime Piracy report, last year there were dozens of incidents of kidnapping for ransom…

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Pirates have actually caused companies to change shipping routes, resulting in increased fees and longer delivery times. It has been estimated over the last decade that the economic cost of Somali piracy alone is billions of dollars. This peaked in 2010 at $7 billion dollars, and while this number decreased over several years, unfortunately…

The cost has been climbing, making the need for autonomous shipping even greater. And those number are only focused on a specific group, meaning the overall damage is that much worse. Autonomous shipping will eliminate the human factor, but then pirates can hold the cargo hostage by threatening to destroy it unless they’re paid a ransom. This means companies will have to make sure their ships are that much harder to track and board…

AAWA: Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications

The AAWA, or Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications, is a program that “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.”

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The program is working hard to produce “the specification and preliminary designs for the next generation of advanced ship solutions.” It’s currently testing technology in multiple scenarios with various operating and climate conditions. With the real world application of these vessels right around the corner, it’s necessary for programs like the AAWA to make sure everything is safe and sound…

Several moving parts from a variety of different scientific fields all have to be balanced together. Thankfully, the AAWA isn’t the only program of its kind, and companies all over the world are working hard to ensure that every element is correct so that when this change is officially implemented, it will reach its full potential. Read ahead to learn about the company that’s leading this particular program, and the others taking their own approach toward a similar goal…

Rolls-Royce Is More Than Just A Car Company

Rolls-Royce is one of the engineering companies developing designs for autonomous shipping. The president of Rolls-Royce Marine, Mikael Makinen, said, “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.” His company in one of the leaders in this new path for the industry…

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He has likened the effect this new technology will have on shipping to that of a smartphone. The company’s vice president of marine innovation, Oskar Levander, unveiled their concept at this year’s Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium in Amsterdam. Along with the presentation, he made a bold claim, “This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist.”

He claims the company will be ready to roll out a remote-controlled ship sooner than later. Recently, they have invested heavily in this research, expanding their operations and forming new partnerships with other groups working toward a similar goal. Their website says, “Such operations offer opportunities to reduce cost and increase revenue. And our unrivaled expertise and equipment knowledge makes us an ideal partner to transform today’s vessels for tomorrow’s needs.”

oX Control Room

One of the main aspects of the Rolls-Royce autonomous ship is its oX control room, from where the ships will be managed remotely. The room will be equipped a wall of monitors that can display a real-time overview of shipping traffic all across the globe. Operators in the control room can use a remote link to monitor vessels, and that’s just the first step…

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Along with remote monitoring, operators will also be able to execute diagnostics by sending drones to the ship. The drone will be programmed to carry out further inspections and, at some point down the road, actually fix certain issues. Operators will eventually be able to use a three-dimensional display of the ships’ mechanics to collaborate with engineers and technicians.

The Remote Operating Center doesn’t copy existing designs, it instead uses “input from experienced captains to place the different system components in the optimum place to give the master confidence and control. The aim is to create a future proof standard for the control of vessels remotely.” This is just one part of how Rolls-Royce is revolutionizing the industry. Read ahead to learn more about how Rolls-Royce will make the ROC possible…

Ship Intelligence

Rolls-Royce is incorporating digitization into the shipping industry with a family of products, solutions and services that are split into two parts: Intelligent Asset Management and Remote & Autonomous. Over the last few years, the company has been putting a lot of money and resources into this, with their Intelligent Analytics Centre in Norway and their Research & Development Centre for Autonomous Ships in Finland working hard…

Rolls-Royce

Intelligent Asset Management, or IAM, connects ships to shore securely while factoring in the quality of data, as well as energy and health concerns. Their approaching ship performance from both micro and macro levels by processing and transforming large amounts of raw data into usable information. According to Rolls-Royce, “Our end vision is to bring ‘total business optimisation’ to the entire logistics chain.”

The Remote & Autonomous side of their approach is using intelligent sensor data fusion to enhance situational awareness to enable safer operation in unpredictable environments. Their advisory system is “designed to mitigate against navigator risk and is particularly useful when operating vessels at night, in adverse weather conditions, congested waterways or when docking or undocking.” And Rolls-Royce isn’t the only company developing this technology…

Wärtsilä

Recently, an engineer sitting at his desk used a joystick connected to a computer to pilot a giant cargo ship thousands of miles away. Using satellite technology, which transferred the real ship’s data into a virtual ship on a screen in front of him, he was able control the ship’s movements precisely. This is something that has only been seen in video games, but now has real world applications…

Wärtsilä

Wärtsilä, a Finnish energy and technology firm, worked for years to prepare this experiment. As the engineer operated the ship remotely, other workers were actually on board to monitor and test the technology and equipment. The ship was active for around four hours and everything ran smoothly, although it was in a much more controlled environment…

The firm feels these smarter ships will not only give operators more control, but also reduce fuel consumption and lower emissions. While ambitious, it’s becoming more and more of a reality. As global trade is increasingly threatened by climate change, which makes the seas more dangerous and unpredictable, the need for advanced controls grows greater. And, keeping actual humans out of harm’s way is another huge benefit of autonomous shipping…

Fibreship

Another ambitious European research project is focused more on the actual construction of the ship. Fibreship is looking to eliminate the use of steel, and instead build ships with composite materials that will be much more efficient. These light vessels, made up of fibre reinforced polymer, or FRP, can be used for shipping cargo, as well as passenger and leisure transport…

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Fibreship is being funded by EU’s Horizon 2020 Programme, which has put millions of dollars into the project. It includes 18 international entities from 11 countries including Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Romania and Spain. The project is working to shift the European shipbuilding industry by increasing awareness of and access to composite materials.

The 50-meter ships will be able to navigate the high seas and inland waterways, something that most current ships are unable to do. Conventional shipbuilding limits versatility and only uses FRP for secondary structures and components. There are various benefits of composite materials, such as a 10-15% decrease in fuel consumption, 30% less weight, an increase in the recycling ratio compared to current ships, a massive reduction in greenhouse gases and noise pollution, all while increasing cargo capacity…

The YARA Birkeland

Norway’s Kongsberg has two autonomous vessels in development. The first is the YARA Birkeland, a 260-foot long container transporter that will be fully electric. The project is planned to be the world’s first fully autonomous logistics concept from industrial site operations, port operations and vessel operations. The Norwegian Government gave a grant that takes care of about a third of the total cost, which is estimated to be around $25 million…

Yara International

YARA Birkeland is named after its owners Yara International and its founder, Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland. Kongsberg’s director of autonomy Peter Due has said of the ship’s advanced sensors, ““One system can see a beer can – you can’t tell if it’s Heineken or Carlsberg but you can see a beer can coming up close.” The ship is trained by machine to learn exactly what objects to avoid.

It’s being designed by Marin Teknikk, with navigation equipment by Kongsberg Maritime. YARA Birkeland will initially operate as a manned ship and sail on two routes, between Herøya and Brevik, and between Herøya and Larvik carrying chemicals and fertilizer. It will reduce NOx and CO2 emissions and improve road safety by removing up to 40,000 truck journeys in populated urban areas.

Hrönn by Kongsberg

Kongberg’s other ship is an offshore vessel called Hrönn, which was contracted by Automated Ships Ltd and is being designed and built in Norway. It will undergo sea trials in the country’s newly designated automated vessel test bed in the Trondheim fjord. The Hrönn will be conducted by DNV GL and the Norwegian Maritime Authority.

Kongsberg

According to Kongberg’s website, “Hrönn is a light-duty, offshore autonomous utility ship servicing the offshore energy, scientific/hydrographic and offshore fish-farming industries. Its intended uses include but are not limited to: Survey, ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) and AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) Launch & Recovery, light intermodal cargo delivery and delivery to offshore installations, and open-water fish farm support. The vessel can also be utilised as a standby vessel, able to provide firefighting support to an offshore platform working in cooperation with manned vessels.”

“Hrönn will initially operate and function primarily as a remotely piloted ship, in Man-in-the-Loop Control mode, but will transition to fully automated, and ultimately autonomous operations as the control algorithms are developed concurrently during remotely piloted operations.” All of these ships will help to revolutionize the shipping industry. Read ahead to find out when they’ll actually be ready for widespread use…

The Remote and Autonomous Shipping Timeline

With multiple projects currently underway, many are wondering when we’ll see these autonomous actually being used. Unfortunately, even when the technology is perfected, it will still be up to countries to change their laws to allow operation. This means that, aside from all the challenges that engineers and developers face, there are also massive legal, regulatory, and insurance issues…

Rolls-Royce

With that being said, companies are still establishing timeline predictions. The Rolls-Royce Marine technology predicts short runs by 2020, and ocean runs by 2025. They hope that their autonomous ships will be commonplace by 2030. Kongsberg’s YARA Birkeland will be in use even sooner. They are continuing to test and develop the AI system with a goal of remote operation by 2019 and fully autonomous operations by 2020…

Japan’s consortium of ship building companies have a similar timeline, with their R&D effort, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars, eyeing 2025 as their first year of autonomous hip operation. The Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism recently announced a joint venture between multiple companies, government agencies and universities to accomplish this goal. As hard as it is to believe, there is actually evidence of this technology being used today…

The Autonomous Ferry and Beyond…

Another exciting project being carried out under the aforementioned AAWA is Project SVAN, or Safer Vessel with Autonomous Navigation, which has produced the world’s first autonomous ferry. According to Rolls-Royce, “the world’s first remote and autonomous ferry isn’t just a groundbreaking achievement. It’s also an insight into the possibilities that await other ship owners around the world.” The project’s success comes as a result of its wholistic execution…

Flickr – Rolls-Royce plc

The company’s collaborative approach established new partnerships with customers and regulatory authorities in a joint effort to design the vessel and its technology alongside the development of future regulations. This shows that multiple organizations can work together on every challenge presented by this ambitious shift in the shipping industry…

Rolls-Royce has proudly presented results that show how possible and realistic these ideas are. They say, “We strongly believe that the future of the industry is remote and autonomous and that all vessels will benefit in some form or another, depending on type and operations. Our demonstrators have proven that Ship Intelligence technologies are here today, working both reliably and cost-effectively, and Intelligent Navigation is no longer a vision. The technology is here today.”

The Future is Autonomous and More

The industry is definitely ready for autonomous shipping technology, and companies are working hard to meet the demand. While the science and numbers check out, it will eventually come down to refining the real world application of these ships in a way that is safe and even more reliable, effective and economically viable than the current methods…

Eco Marine Power

Regulators are closely monitoring these projects and will be understandably tough on their final designs and submissions. Industry insiders are hopeful that these ships will be in use soon and that they will continue to grow and evolve. Companies are planning for a long-term shift, and will use the projected profits from the first iteration of these vessels to invest in future versions…

In the bigger picture, this change in the shipping industry will translate far beyond it. Experts are hopeful that this will also effect other aspects of transportation, lowering the cost and reducing operating expenses and increasing new market potential. While the shipping industry evolves, so will any company or product that uses it. Other companies outside the shipping industry are paying close attention to these advancements, and if everything goes according to plan, the possibilities are endless.

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About the Author:
Ryan is a rabid consumer of content, from movies and television to podcasts and news. He lives in a hole underground with nothing but a computer and a strong internet connection. Ryan spends all of his waking moments online searching for the most interesting stories to share with the rest of the world.