Rolls-Royce's concept of a fully autonomous container ship
Automation has the potential to increase safety through a separate way. Supporters of autonomous ships mostly focus on the signs that this trend shows to reduce the risk of human error on board, which has been the main cause of accidents at sea.
Indeed, supposing that no personnel will be onboard no more human errors would occur, no one would get injured. Studies indicate that sailor-less ships would be managed from land-based facilities focusing mostly on specific tasks rather than entire jobs.
To this effect, new positions will replace those being automated; augmenting rather than replacing humans. Of course, it’s hard to predict how autonomous shipping will unfold. Luckily, the development of such ships is not about to happen at once. As of now many North European countries proved particularly supportive to the development of autonomous maritime operations.
British giant Rolls-Royce took the lead this year in vessel automation agreements, including the cooperation with Google, to boost its artificial intelligence based object classification system for detecting the objects a vessel can encounter at sea. The company also demonstrated the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel in Copenhagen harbor, in cooperation with Svitzer.
In the meantime, Japanese Yara and Norwegian Kongsberg joined forces in June to launch ‘Yara Birkeland’, the world’s first zero-emissions, fully electric and autonomous container ship to start fully unmanned operation by 2020.
The pros and cons of autonomous shipping technology
There are certainly benefits ahead for the industry such as Isolated islands could be served, inhospitable routes navigated and remote areas accessed, much of it with diminished risk to seafarers.
As 80 per cent of accidents are human error, autonomous ships offer safer solutions than crewed ships. However, risk in shipping will remain; it’s just that the risk of human error is transferred onshore to a remote control centre. Also, with opportunity comes fear, as the industry worries about autonomous shipping leading to new forms of piracy.
Autonomous shipping projects began in 2015, with the advanced autonomous waterborne applications project, backed by the Finnish government, involving key players including Rolls-Royce and FinnFerries.
In the same year, a European Union-sponsored research project, maritime unmanned navigation through intelligence in networks, was completed. Other projects and research have ensued in Norway, the UK and China.
Last year, YARA and Kongsberg entered into a partnership to build the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container vessel, the YARA Birkeland. It is scheduled to switch to remote operation in 2019 and start performing fully autonomous operations from 2020 when it will sail between the ports of Porsgrunn, Brevik and Larvik.