Sunday 21st Jan, 2018

SPECIAL REPORT: Information Techology

Rolls-Royce’s concept design for an autonomous ship.
Rolls-Royce’s concept design for an autonomous ship.

ONE of the most talked about trials in autonomous or remote controlled shipping is the Norwegian container vessel Yara Birkeland, which is expected to sail unmanned between domestic ports to deliver fertiliser.

Aiming to launch next year, it claims to be the world’s first zero emissions, fully autonomous container ship.

The cost and environmental benefits are clear: it will be cheaper to run and save on diesel emissions from around 40,000 heavy truck journeys every year.

The Yara Birkeland demonstrates the kind of benefits that autonomous technologies could offer to Australia in the future, according to industry researcher and maritime expert with the Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics at Deakin University, Peter van Duyn.

“We might be able to use an autonomous vessel to travel from say Melbourne to Tasmania… that might be an application where we would consider it for transporting freight.

“Because we do have a coastline with lots of major ports along it,” said Mr van Duyn.

Australia is also home to one of the world’s biggest shipping customers, resources giant BHP, which itself is exploring the potential of autonomous shipping although is yet to release details of its technology partners.

Mr van Duyn said the fact that Australia doesn’t share land borders with other countries may make it easier to introduce any policies regarding the operation of autonomous transportation.

“The technology may be there but there’s a long way to go in talking about international boundary crossing. If you’re in Europe and you say that you want to use autonomous ships you will have to sail across national boundaries into international waters.”

While ship crew sizes have decreased over the last 50 years with greater automation and use of technology, Mr van Duyn believes that even autonomous vessels will require a minimal crew in some circumstances.

“When you go out into international waters it becomes more problematic to comply with international regulations and also if you sail into really busy shipping lanes like the English Channel or the Straits of Malacca.

“I can’t see autonomous vessels without people on board to do the navigation into the near future. It’s a bit like autonomous vehicles… if every vehicle is autonomous then it might work but when you get the mix of people and some are bad drivers how does an autonomous truck or vehicle interact with that?”

The Yara Birkeland will for the first year be crewed to check the ship for its decision-making processes and rectify any errors the technology makes. In 2019 the crew will be removed from the ship and it will run autonomously with a shore team on 24-hour watch.

In 2020 the feeder container ship will be unmanned. However, it will always travel within the Norwegian Coastal Administration Vessel Tracking System area, which is essentially an air traffic control for shipping.

The Yara Birkeland will also receive an Automatic Identification System (AIS) feed, a GPS transponder system where vessels constantly transmit who they are via satellite to AIS receivers around the world. It’s also tipped to feature an array of other sensors and sophisticated communication systems on board, developed by aerospace company Kongsberg.

According to a report published by insurance company Allianz in 2012, between 75% and 96% of marine accidents are a result of human error, equivalent to US$1.6 billion.

Remotely controlled and autonomous ships are expected to reduce the risk of injury and even death amongst ship’s crews and the potential loss or damage of valuable assets.

“I would agree with the notion that it’s safer,” said Mr van Duyn. “There’s been a couple of examples recently where US Navy vessels have collided with merchant vessels and it was mainly due to human error,” he said, adding that fatigue amongst the crew is a major factor.

Potentially the Yara Birkeland will be able to see more than the officer on watch on a containership of today. Simultaneously it should be able to see from low on the vessel’s bow for any near objects as well as from all other directions.

The development of autonomous shipping will bring with it structural changes in every area of the industry.

Comparing the costs of running an autonomous and a conventional bulk carrier, a recent study found that, “Assuming identical cargo carrying capacity… the required freight rate of the autonomous bulker which produces a zero net present value is 3.4% lower than the required freight rate of the conventional vessel”.

Mr van Duyn thinks that figure is conservative, suggesting that personnel in a vessel control centre could handle multiple vessels at a time.

“While crew on board would be reduced, there would be shore-based personnel to replace them and there may be additional maintenance crews but I’d say the costs advantage would be greater than 3-4%.”

He said there are two schools of thought on what automation means for maritime careers.

“One says that AI and automation will do us out of a job and other people say that’s not the case.

“It will have an impact but I don’t believe it will be a major one. There will still be the necessity for people to go on short voyages for maintenance and people onshore,” he said.

Many projects are linking autonomous vessels with cleaner systems that lower greenhouse emissions, although Mr van Duyn is not convinced that one is synonymous with the other.

“I think it’s a bit of sales pitch… manned vessels can run on cleaner fuels such as LNG or batteries as well,” he said.

But for those operators wanting to dispense with onboard maintenance crews it makes sense to consider cleaner fuels or zero emissions options, given that the most commonly used fuel oils today take a toll on engines and require substantial maintenance.

Mr van Duyn provided a final word on external threats, drawing on the recent experience of Maersk which fell victim to a costly cyber attack earlier this year.

“If control centres lose connection with equipment, then equipment stops.

“Then there’s the unthinkable… like hackers driving a ship into the Sydney Harbour Bridge or using a chemical tanker to create a major environmental disaster. You want to make sure you’ve got very secure connections from the shore to and from the autonomous vessels,” said Mr van Duyn.

From the print edition December 14, 2017

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