Soulless ships to hit our seas

By Justin Ware. Published at Oct 5, 2017, in Features

It’s a calm evening on the Pacific Ocean as a large cargo ship makes its way towards Australia.

When a proximity alert indicates that a submerged reef is straight ahead, the ship evenly changes direction and avoids disaster, keeping its precious cargo intact.

It does all of this without a single crew member assisting it to do so.

Driverless cars have dominated the discussion when it comes to automated transport, but ‘ghost’ ships may be far closer to implementation than their four-wheeled brethren. Further, the financial motivation to perfect autonomous ships is significant.

Money talks and big business listens. The momentum behind remote controlled freighters is no exception to this rule.

The global logistics market, which includes all activities of the supply chain, will be worth US$15.5 trillion by 2023. The implementation of such crew-less vessels would significantly disrupt this industry.

The average wage of a vessel worker is approximately US$81,000, with an average crew ranging from 13-35 members. In addition to slashing overhead costs by up to 90 per cent, crew deaths and injuries would also be crossed off the liabilities list — a plus for everybody.

According to insurance provider Allianz, between 75 and 96 per cent of marine incidents are a result of human error, often caused by fatigue.

From 2008-2012, over 7,500 souls were lost at sea, with 1,300 vessels involved in an incident or casualty in the same period. The US Coast Guard also reported 626 fatalities within its jurisdiction in 2015.

How far away are autonomous ships?

Norwegian companies Marin Teknikk and Yara will launch the world’s first automated cargo ship ‘Yara Birkeland’ in 2019. The vessel, which cost US$25 million to manufacture, is equipped with GPS, radars, cameras and sensors to navigate itself around other boats.

It should be noted, however, that any further catalysts are speculative at this stage and should not be taken as guaranteed. Investors should seek professional financial advice for further information.

Yara Birkeland will initially operate as a manned vessel, moving to remote operation in 2019 and is expected to be capable of performing fully autonomous operations from 2020,” Marin Teknikk said in relation to the craft.

MSubs, which is a British ship manufacturer, is another main player in the unmanned ship space. Its Mayflower Autonomous ship (MAS) project aims to build and sail a fully autonomous unmanned ship by 2021.

“The civilian maritime world has, as yet, been unable to harness the autonomous drone technology that has been used so effectively in situations considered unsuitable for humans,” Phaneuf said.

“It begs the question, if we can put a rover on Mars and have it autonomously conduct research, why can’t we sail an unmanned vessel across the Atlantic Ocean and, ultimately, around the globe?

“That’s something we are hoping to answer with MAS,” he said.

MSubs also owns Automated Ships Ltd, which has commenced its own autonomous ship project. It believes that its Hronn craft will be the world’s first fully automated vessel for offshore operations. It will be designed and built in Norway in cooperation with Kongsberg Maritime AS, with development expected to begin soon.

According to Kongsberg’s website, the Hronn is:

A light-duty, offshore autonomous utility ship servicing the offshore energy, scientific/hydrographic and offshore fish-farming industries.

Hronn crewless ship

“We are proud and excited to be a part of the first project to actually realise the potential of unmanned vessels,” Kongsberg’s Stene Forsund said.

Beyond cargo ships – Rolls Royce

Initial talk from small time manufacturers aside, perhaps the biggest development in achieving machine-autonomy on the seas came last month.

British giant Rolls-Royce revealed its plans for an unmanned 60 meter military vessel, which will be able to perform patrol and surveillance missions.

The company noted that it had received significant interest for such a ship from numerous navies.

“Over the next ten years or so, Rolls-Royce expects to see the introduction of medium-sized unmanned platforms, particularly in navies, as the concept of mixed manned and unmanned fleets develops,” Rolls-Royce General Manager Benjamin Thorp said.

“With our experience and capabilities we expect to lead the field.”

The prototype vessel has a planned range of 3,500 nautical miles and will be able to operate for over 100 days at sea.

While it’s believed that Rolls-Royce is still 10 to 15 years away from developing its naval prototype, the announcement is perhaps the best indicator yet that crewless ships are coming, it’s just a matter of time.

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