I believe that many of you have heard lately, at least once, about the autonomous or “unmanned” vessels and thinking on how this will affect your jobs, life and your future. As I could see and understand, everyone of us tend to deny and refuse to believe that this will ever happen or that will happen into the late future when most of our or your generation will be long retired. The ugly truth is that the this kind of future is near and maybe will not happen into the next 10-15 years, but for sure it will happen and more faster that we want to believe or think.
The joint European three year Research Project MUNIN which was finalized in August 2015, a project financed by the EU with participating partners from several European countries, was focus on the development of the autonomous control systems aboard a bulk carrier remotely controlled from a shore control center, simulation based and integrating the various functions needed. A ‘Shore Control Center’ was designed capable of supervising vessels worldwide using electronic nautical charts. The relating ‘Unmanned Bridge’ development included an ‘Automated Lookout System’ capable of conducting evasive actions autonomously and according to international regulations from preventing collisions at sea. Also an ‘Autonomous Engine Room’ was developed with relevant engine functions monitored remotely on multiple monitors. Remote condition monitoring was enabled to predict eventual engine service needs at an early stage, enabling service to be done when the vessel is in port.
Norway recently launched a fully electric autonomous cargo vessel which is employed into the inner water voyages, carrying containerized fertilizer and in 2018 Finland launched a fully autonomous ferry vessel.
In addition to joint projects companies such Wärtsilä, ABB and Rolls-Royce are all involved also with their own developments of technologies which can, in the end, be utilized also in future unmanned ship operations.
The new IoT trend, high speed large bandwidth internet and fast progress into AI pave the way forward for fast developing of autonomous vessels. Unfortunately for seafarers this is a certainty and all major companies, together with classification societies and International Maritime Organization (IMO) are looking forward to implement these projects as it will be highly profitable for the shipowners and operators. The vessel can be largely simplified, as there will be no need for accommodation, crew facilities, catering, air conditioning, refrigeration, safety gear and appliances, crew salaries, transportation and insurance and so on. All of these will be removed, more cargo space will be available and can result in a significant reduction of fuel and in construction costs.
IMO has recently completed a regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) that was designed to assess existing IMO instruments to see how they might apply to ships with varying degrees of automation. The regulatory scoping exercise (RSE) for safety treaties was finalized at the 103rd Session of the MSC in May 2021, and for treaties under the purview of the Legal Committee, in July 2021. (Source: IMO)
It is true that there will be large capital expenditure in initially investing in the technology and everyone is asking what would happen if there are problems requiring immediate attention, such as cyber-attack, machinery breakdown, flooding, maintaining safety of the vessel and navigation, manage fire risk, communicating distress and provide continuous monitoring and situational awareness.
The vessel should be able to maintain its means of propulsion at all times. In the event of loss of propulsion, the vessel should be able to quickly restart the propulsion plant without external aid. Continuity of onboard electrical power is critical to safeguard the operation of propulsion auxiliaries, control and communication systems. The vessel’s electrical power generation and distribution should be designed to be robust and reliable. Where necessary, redundant power systems are to be considered.
The propulsion will be most probably electric as it is the most safe, efficient and reliable form of propulsion. Pure hydrogen fuel cells are the most obvious suitable form of energy provider, as is efficient and environmentally friendly. Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corporation (Toshiba ESS) is the leading company into developing pure hydrogen fuel cells for large mode of transport such as vessels and they develop a compact, lightweight and high-power 200kW class standard module*1 of pure hydrogen fuel cells, “H2RexTM-Mov”, for use by vessels. The fuel cells are under form of a container size and can be easily replaced when needed.
Without onboard personnel to attend to machinery failures, onboard machinery and systems have to be designed to be robust and reliable. There will be increased emphasis on machinery health monitoring to anticipate and resolve issues before they surface. For critical machinery, redundancy may have to be built into the design.
For a fully autonomous vessel without onboard personnel, the fire protection concept for the vessel will have to depart from current conventional concepts and be redesigned. Current regulations for conventional ships take into account the presence of seafarers onboard to assist in fire-fighting efforts. However, where there are no onboard personnel, the existing fire protection philosophy will have to be reexamined and redefined.
The goal of maintaining safety of navigation of the vessel requires analysis of not only the vessel’s own onboard systems but also the vessel’s interaction with other vessels and the ship’s response to environmental and sea conditions. Some of the major companies have already implemented an “Automatic Collision Avoidance System” which are implemented to support the Officer On Watch in collision avoidance decision making. The system proves to be very reliable and enhances the collision avoidance procedures and utilization of information on the bridge and soon this system will make the presence of able seaman (AB) on the bridge for watchkeeping obsolete.
The connectivity between the vessel and the remote station that performs monitoring and control is essential to autonomous and remote-control functions, and there are various factors to be considered, such as the bandwidth, data integrity, reliability, and latency. Data integrity should be verified and corrupted or invalid data should have timely recovery. Data connection to the vessel should be robust and fault resilient. For autonomous or remote control functions of higher risk, the functions are not to be compromised even with degradation of network or complete loss of connection. Network latency should satisfy the functional and performance needs of the specific autonomous or remote-control function. Again, some of the large companies have already implemented an enhanced ship to shore communication where the vessel fuel and energy consumption, propulsion engine important parameters, route, speed and refrigerated cargo condition is constantly and real time monitored.
The optimization, or in some cases elimination, of seafarers onboard vessels is one of the key drivers for autonomous development and probably, it is also the most challenging issue. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) article 94(4)(b) requires all ships to be “in charge of a master and officers who possess appropriate qualifications”. SOLAS, MARPOL, STCW and various other regulations presumes that a master will be present onboard and the ship manned. Societal acceptance to unmanned operations and the possible loss or reassignment of traditional seafarer jobs is also critical to this discussion. Some key maritime stakeholders have raised concerns on the impact of autonomous ship operations on port operations and the possibility of job losses. Some of the worldwide cargo terminals (Rotterdam , Dubai, New York etc.) are fully autonomous and/or requires minimum human supervision. The legal, regulatory and societal challenges which autonomous technology needs to surmount will take some time. In the meantime, smart and autonomous technology has arrived and the focus is to ensure that these technologies be implemented safely.
I know that is hard to believe that this transition will happen sooner, especially when you see, nowadays, how greedy and cost aware the companies are with their scarcity in supplying materials and spare parts, poor quality spares and materials provided and more and more lack of support and poor management available, when autonomous vessels will require more robust, reliable and redundant machinery and propulsion. But, most probably this cost awareness and greediness is the driving force which determines this trend towards more cost efficient, reliable and autonomous vessels.
As the prediction is to have by 2035 autonomous ocean-going vessels, the seafarers will need to adapt to this upcoming trend, become more specialized and should not rely only on traditionally seafaring. As the first generation autonomous vessels will be probably minimum manned, young marine engineers should focus more on mechatronics, PLC, power electronics, AI, fuel cells and new propulsion technologies as the future will require highly specialized individuals.
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