The vessels will be smarter, but hardly self-driving

Shipping generally has difficulty catching the media's interest. But when it comes to spectacular technology, especially about self-driving ships, the journalists listen. There are two problems with that.
Firstly, large vessels in international traffic will not be self-driving in the foreseeable future. Second, the message scares off the skills of the future from the industry.


"We live in an ever changing world where unmanned remote controlled vessels are becoming reality" says a steady and deep male voice while a Rolls Royce drone glides over the ocean. In a control room somewhere else on land, a Finn is sitting and receiving reports and giving the drone commands as if he were picked out of Avatar. The music that accompanies the pictures throws one straight into the 80's film Das Boot.
The future?
Hardly, says Christer Lindvall, sea captain and member of the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation.

“In 40 years, the majority of all vessels are still conventional”, he says.

The reasons are several. Firstly, there are neither economic incentives nor any other driving force from the shipping companies to make their fleet autonomous and self-driving.

“I have not heard any ship owners who have ships that go in international traffic say that they want self-propelled vessels.”
“In addition, it is a security issue. Who wants to go with an unmanned airplane over the Atlantic? Not me anyway. The same applies to ships. It is said that many accidents have been due to the human factor, but you can also turn it around: How many accidents have not been avoided due to people on board?”

The law does not speak for completely unmanned vessels either. Major changes are required in the international regulations, changes that must then be implemented in each country's national legislation and liability regulations.

“The issue is also discussed within the IMO, and in order to bring about changes there is more or less required "consensus" among the Member States and in this context they have different agendas. Some are port states and coastal states primarily, others represent shipowners / shipping companies and others are countries that provide low cost crews. Personally, I find it difficult to see how they can agree”, Christer Lindvall says.

He is aware that what he says sounds boring, almost a bit conservative if you want to, and that it hardly arouses any interest from journalists. But new spectacular technology does. That's why the press writes and many in the industry talk about unmanned / autonomous ships as if they will be here tomorrow.
What are the consequences of this?

“ What I am most worried about is the recruitment. How do we get young people into the shipping industry when the message is that no staff are needed? It has already, together with other factors, meant that the admissions to the maritime colleges and seafarers' schools have decreased drastically.”

That is why Christer Lindvall urges the industry to stop talking about autonomous / unmanned vessels, and instead use the term SMART ships - something he also discovered that more and more people are starting to do.

“Although we do not get any self-driving vessels, we will greatly benefit from the technology's development. Digitization will increase, we now have Sea Traffic Management and other systems that create better documentation for the staff on board. If we talk about technology development in this way, I believe that we can increase the interest in shipping among young people.”

Robert Rylander, researcher at RISE, agrees. Large container ships will never be unmanned. The pendulum around the automation hype he says, has swung back a little.

“The automotive car industry have also realized that one must invest in driver support systems and security instead of self driving cars.”

The trend is clear. Instead of the "High fidelity systems" such as Rolls Royce, Kongsberg, Wärtsilä and ABB show off, many in the sector now invest in a "half-old military technology"

“It's a slightly more sophisticated autopilot. With some camera technology attached to it, one gets a system that help a navigator to be able to assess the situation around him.”

The technology will make shipping more secure and sustainable, even for the personel on board. At the individual level, Robert Rylander believes that socio-technical sustainability will have a major impact on the attractiveness of shipping.

"You will be able to only work daytime also and avoid shifting even out at sea. The bridge layout will be ergonomic and appropriate to support you in your decisions. This system will require more IT skills than the operator has today. I think this is the only way to make shipping more attractive."

But unmanned ships then? Well, both Christer Lindvall and Robert Rylander believe that their potential exists. But on shorter distances and at a national level

“We have the example of Yara Birkeland in Norway, which will transport 80 containers back and forth on a 13 kilometer short distance. The idea is that the ship will eventually become unmanned”, Robert Rylander says.

A similar scenario would be possible in Sweden. Robert Rylander mentions shuttle ferries, container and bulk traffic in Mälardalen and via Trollhättan's locks and canals up in Vänern.

"In Sweden we do not have enough truck drivers to cope with managing all goods and here is a huge potential for transfer of goods, new jobs, more sustainable infrastructure, logistics and transport systems”, Robert Rylander says.
The question is only if we see the potential. If not, Robert Rylander is afraid that it will be our neighboring countries that will lead and "profit" on the development while we are forced to buy their solutions.