An outlook on autonomous safety on vessels

Self-driven trains, autonomous vehicles, drones in the air. Whether it's rail, road or air, unmanned vehicles are more or less becoming a reality. And for shipping, it is no longer if, but when, autonomous merchant ships will be sailing across oceans. For Sweden to be in the forefront of the development, it is time to move from words to action.

The text above is in short the conclusion of a feasibility study initiated by Lighthouse on autonomous safety on vessels. The report is written by Robert Rylander, Victoria Swedish ICT and Yemao Man, Chalmers Department of Shipping and Marine Technology.

- Autonomous shipping addresses among many things the three pillars for sustainability. For example, environmentally, it can reduce emissions and more efficiently use current infrastructure. Socially, crew on-board could work “day time” or from land in control centres and economically would more efficient design of vessels increase the cargo capacity. And another aspect is of course the safety; many incidents at sea happens due to fatigue. More autonomous systems on-board could reduce this types of incidents, Robert Rylander says.

- A rationale behind the development of autonomous unmanned vessels for intercontinental voyages is the reduction of CO2 emissions associated with slow steaming. By reducing the speed of a typical container vessel by 30%, a 50% reduction in fuel consumption and GHG emissions can be achieved. With lowered speeds and the open sailing environments during deep-sea voyages, it may be feasible to replace the human operator with automation technologies specific to watch keeping and engineering, Yemao Man says.

Many similarities
The feasibility study is a comprehensive review of the on-going work around the world towards the development of autonomous shipping. Foremost, the two EU projects MUNIN and SARUMS are studied in detail. The MUNIN project was a highly successful concept study, investigating the feasibility of unmanned merchant ships, while SARUMS has a military/SAR approach and focused on smaller vehicles; Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV). Despite the projects different focus, there are many similarities between the outcome of MUNIN and SARUMS, and other similar projects that are ongoing around the world.

A paradigm shift
The shipping industry is facing a paradigm shift with technology that has developed, increased precision, lower fuel consumptions, longer maintenance intervals and richer levels of data/information and better situation awareness.

- The autonomous technology has been widely used across various transportation sectors (commercial airliners, autonomous unmanned metro in Copenhagen, etc.) whereas it has not achieved the mature point to consider mass utilization in the shipping industry, Yemao Man says.

Even if shipping technology has developed, the study suggests that there are still needs for improvements. For example, sensor systems, test of current technologies and software and to identify capability gaps. And the development of sensors, combining technology and categorising software to improve their capabilities, needs to be addressed.

With increased automation, a safer shipping can be achieved. Even though collisions and grounding rarely occur, a vessel with a high level of autonomy will reduce the likelihood of the occurrence by having systems constantly aiding the human operators to make proper decision making and keeping the whole system in safety. For example, a smart system that detects a dangerous situation could have the permission to sound the general alarm on the vessel and even to alter the vessel's course if no action is taken from the officer on watch.

Different ways of autonomy
Autonomous shipping will probably exist in several different ways, such as smart vessels with a higher level of automation that helps the crew with their decision making. Or hybrid solutions where ships are partially controlled remotely or where the bridge is unmanned under certain conditions. Another option is unmanned remote operated vessels or a fully autonomous vessel that handles the planning and execution of the complete voyage from port to port. Only monitored from a shore with the ability to invoke only if deemed necessary.

But even if the technology has come far, the regulatory framework is trailing behind. Autonomous vehicles/vessels are not mentioned in International codes and conventions, but both the MUNIN and SARUMS project came to the conclusion that it's not necessary to wait for the International Maritime Organization, IMO, for a world ratification, since national initiatives allow autonomous vessels on their domestic waters. There will likely be a parallel development of autonomous systems and the technology will mature faster than the legislation/liability will be finalised within IMO.

Future challenges
And on future challenges Yemao Man says:

- Maritime safety stands in the centre of all challenges. Just because we move people from ship to shore doesn’t mean there are no humans involved in the overarching system. The industrial design and implementation still have to integrate human operators and complex automation with the human factor mind-set.

- As Yemao said, we will have humans in the loop more or less. But sailing a vessel in a harsh environment where it co-exists with other vessels, pleasure crafts, wild-life etc. completely without “boundaries” that the exits in the air or at land is a great challenge. On the plus side of this, it’s fairly easy to mount sensors etc. on a vessel compared to planes and cars, Robert Rylander says.

There are a number of different timelines for the future of autonomous shipping, but something they all have in common is that smart vessels are just ahead. Already in the coming years, ships with supervised autonomy can be a reality and by the year 2020 remotely operated local vessels could be sailing our waters.

Text: Andreas Kron