Autonomous shipping: are self-driving ships the safer future?

Friday, 16 October, 2020

Autonomous shipping: are self-driving ships the safer future?

Australian Maritime College researcher Dr Reza Emad predicts that the future of commercial ships could rely on machine learning, artificial intelligence and smart satellite technology to improve shipping safety and efficiency. Dr Emad estimates that by 2020, there will be more and more remotely controlled ships with fewer crew onboard. “In the next 10 years we may even have remotely controlled or even fully autonomous small commercial ships in near coastal areas with absolutely no crew onboard,” Dr Emad said. These ships will be remotely controlled from shore control stations by upskilled seafarers and autonomous systems technicians.”

Future operators will require technical competencies and ‘soft skills’ to manage autonomous ships from shore, with Dr Emad stating that people will need to be able to communicate with each other virtually, via online or remote link, and be able to communicate with the machines driving the ships. Dr Emad and international collaborates interviewed maritime experts and seafaring professionals from across the world about their skill preparedness for autonomous shipping and found that some seafarers expressed fear of losing their jobs in the future.

Currently, commercial oceangoing ships generally have 20–30 personnel onboard, but can be operated by a team of 11, the minimum legal requirement. It is unclear how many operators will be needed to monitor ships from shore and manage maintenance and battery swaps upon arrival at port. “What we know is that ships will always need humans,” Dr Emad said. “It is the way that humans interact with ships that will be different.” While computers can follow instructions, they do not have the emotional intelligence of humans. Dr Emad notes that people skilled in leadership, teamwork, communication, managing crises and working with diverse stakeholders will still be needed.

In the initial stages of remote-controlled commercial shipping, operators will need the experience of an ex-mariner, but over time, the industry will be more inclusive of early-career professionals. “As the technology advances, virtual reality and augmented reality simulation will progressively be used for training future operators and this will allow for a more diverse pool, including early-career maritime professionals,” Dr Emad said. The journey towards autonomous ships will require four stages, from crew onboard to operators onshore, with stage four seeing autonomous, battery-powered ships with all operators onshore observing virtual reality systems that visually replicate the mechanical and technical systems on the ship.

“Stage four ships will need to be designed for the most minimal maintenance — definitely no pistons,” Dr Emad said. “An electric-powered, carbon-neutral battery will need to last two months and be replaced upon arrival at the destination.” In May 2020, a ‘stage two’ tugboat was successfully tested in Tokyo Bay by the Japanese Government. The tugboat was fitted with sensors and cameras, which remote operators used to analyse the boat’s surroundings. “The testing process is essential for checking the technology and improving ship-to-shore communication systems,” Dr Emad said.

Research is underway for the construction of a ‘stage three’ ship in Norway, which has most of the features of a ‘stage four’ ship, but with personnel onboard to monitor the operations and fix any parts needing maintenance. “At this stage, coastal and domestic shipping is at the forefront of industry 4.0, with technology for international shipping needing more development,” Dr Emad said. But the global regulatory framework for commercial shipping could potentially hinder the commercial rollout of autonomous ships.

A regulatory framework ratified by all countries with major ports could take years or even decades. It could be facilitated by a new code that sits along various conventions, led by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Dr Emad notes that achieving an international regulatory framework for autonomous ships that is acceptable to all IMO members is a complex process. Learnings from other sectors will help the shipping industry move towards stage four.

“In Australia we see regulatory exemptions enabling autonomous vessels to operate in oil, gas and hydrographic survey sectors,” Dr Emad said. “The global shipping sector will get invaluable insights from other industries more advanced in applying machine learning, artificial intelligence and smart satellite technology for improved safety and efficiency.”

Image credit: ©

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