Last Updated on August 8, 2023
Have you ever heard of autonomous shipping?
In case you don’t know, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the international shipping’s global regulatory body, primarily defines autonomous ships, also called Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS), and their different degrees of autonomy.
What are Autonomous Ships?
Autonomous ships are defined as ships that operate independently of interaction with humans to a certain degree. These ships can operate at one or several degrees of autonomy during one voyage. The following explains the different degrees of autonomy of these ships:
- In full autonomy, the ship’s operating system can determine actions and make decisions by itself without any human intervention.
- Operations of a ship with automated decision support and automated processes may be automated although automation. However, this time, automation guides seafarers in making informed decisions instead of controlling the ship’s navigation. The ship’s crew is on board, and they are responsible for controlling and operating the functions and systems of the shipboard.
- No crew is present on board, with the ship controlled and operated remotely.
- The crew is present on board in case of emergencies, but the ship is operated and controlled remotely.
The COVID-19 pandemic has helped speed up technological advances in almost all industries. When the lockdowns ease away and as the world adapts to the new paradigm, maritime automation and shipping management are expected to gain remarkable traction.
Even though drones, trucks, and automobiles are currently just the only ones that belong to the bigger picture of autonomous transport, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) stated that ships, as well as other maritime vessels, make up 90% of all global trade, which make them the lifeblood of the international economy.
Autonomous Shipping: How Does It Work?
Autonomous ships rely on electronic sensors to provide input to their advanced computer systems. These electronic brains use sophisticated algorithms to process the data, enabling the vessels to effectively avoid collisions and navigate with utmost safety. By utilizing cutting-edge technology, these ships ensure efficient and secure maritime operations.
The ability of a ship to communicate and establish surrounding and positional information and make decisions depending on this information is critical to developing autonomous operations. Here are the three primary aspects of autonomous shipping:
Connectivity and communication
With the current technologies of autonomous shipping, it’s critical to have clear connectivity between the crew and the ship. A sufficient communication link between the remote control location, when needed, control algorithms, and sensors of the ship is very important for the autonomous ship to function seamlessly. These communications should be bi-directional, scalable, and accurate, with support from multiple systems.
Collision avoidance and navigation are essential for any ship, particularly those with any degree of autonomy. It lets them determine the specific action according to the sensory information they receive.
The specific decision algorithms behind it require properly interpreting maritime regulations and rules. Control algorithms serve as the electronic brain for semi-autonomous or autonomous vessels. Its development is an iterative and gradual process subject to extensive simulation and testing.
Today’s sensor technology has become more competent and is present in various forms of autonomous vehicle operation, most significantly cars. Different sensor technologies render an accurate perspective of the spatial environment of a vessel or its remote operators in all conditions and at all times.
Inputs from various types of sensors, such as LIDAR, thermal imaging, high-definition visual cameras, and radars, can be used independently. However, the AAWA project of Rolls Royce concludes that achieving the best results is possible if different sensor inputs are fused.
They stated that fusing sensor data is now possible with the help of existing technology. It will only be a matter of time to discover the best way to combine several sensor technologies in various climatic and operating conditions subjected to a series of tests at sea.
Notable Autonomous Shipping Innovations
The present global pandemic speeds up the shipping industry’s automation efforts and is expected to be inspired by the evolutionary innovation of autonomous technologies in the aviation and automobile industry.
The automation shall initially focus on the narrow use case scenarios and eventually develop the ability to handle further economy. The existing automation technologies don’t take complete control of the ship, although the semi-automated systems help lessen the stress that the bridge is exposed to.
The semi-automated systems constantly monitor the vessel’s overall navigational situation, calculate possible collision scenarios and issue alerts.
Below are some of the most notable innovations in the world of autonomous shipping:
1. Collision Avoidance System
Orca AI, a Tel Aviv-based company, has developed an intelligent navigation system that utilizes AI to detect objects and ships, measure their distance, and provide risk assessment for potential collisions. This groundbreaking technology relies on data from various sensors, including low-light and thermal cameras installed on vessels.
Studies have revealed that a significant portion, 75%, of maritime liability losses are attributed to human errors. Most accidents occur in straits, narrows, or ports where multiple vessels are often in close proximity. The challenging low-light conditions and narrow waterways exacerbate these issues.
While Sonar and similar systems have been used for marine navigation for a long time, continuous monitoring is still crucial. Furthermore, these systems lack the required accuracy and efficiency to mitigate these challenges effectively.
2. Fully Autonomous Electric Container Ship
Kongsberg and Yara International, a Norwegian company, have worked hard to put an autonomous electric container ship into service since 2017. The Yara Birkeland Autonomous Ship Project is expected to span 12 nautical miles and three ports in southern Norway.
The ship features sensors such as infrared cameras, LIDAR, and radar to gather positional data that gets fed to the automation algorithms. This helps maneuver and position the ship automatically. The ship is also equipped with an automated mooring system that makes it possible to berth and unberth even without human intervention.
Initially, the Yara Birkeland will have a crew but will shift to full autonomy little by little. Together with the route of the ship, operation centers will also be equipped for remote handling of emergencies and supporting the decision-making process of the onboard AI.
YARA uses approximately 100 diesel trucks daily for fertilizer transport on this particular route. They effectively remove about 40,000 trucks annually from the roads during the project. It is expected to contribute greatly to eliminating NOx and CO2 emissions, lessen congestion, improve road safety, and reduce noise pollution.
The project represents just one aspect of the broader effort of Kongsberg to integrate more autonomy into seafaring container vessels. The company has already crafted and presented auto-docking and auto-crossing technology.
Kongsberg worked with Wilhelmsen in 2018 to launch the joint venture named Massterly, developing land-based operations to monitor and control the autonomous ships of Norway.
3. Mayflower Autonomous Ship
The US-based marine exploration and research organization, Promare, commissioned a crewless ship across the Atlantic Ocean piloted by an AI captain powered by IBM. With solar power mainly propelling it, Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) was intended to make a similar journey taken by the original Mayflower some 400 years ago.
During the transatlantic journey, this ship was meant to enter deep ocean waters with inaccessible cloud or satellite connectivity. All the data processing necessary for navigational and functioning assistance should also be available on the ship.
The AI captain of Mayflower can identify and detect buoys, ships, and other possible hazards. With the help of the onboard AIS or automatic identification system, Mayflower also has access to data about the cargo type, speed, weight, and class of the ships in front of it. This also accepts and interprets radio broadcast warnings from cargo ships.
4. Rolls Royce Powered Ferry Service
The collaborative efforts of the Finnish ferry operator Finferries and Rolls-Royce in 2018 have successfully shown the first-ever fully autonomous ferry in the world. The demonstration was carried out on the Parainen-Nauvo-route in an archipelago south of Turku City in Finland.
Falco is a double-ended car ferry measuring 53.8 meters that entered service in 1993 with Finferries. During its maiden autonomous voyage, 80 VIP guests were onboard, with Falco conducting the journey until completely autonomous control with the help of the Rolls-Royce Ship Intelligence technologies.
The Bottom Line
Could autonomous shipping be the future of the maritime industry? Frankly, it seems highly probable. Although there will undoubtedly be initial obstacles and difficulties to overcome, shipbuilding companies are projected to refine the technology and leverage its capabilities for short- and long-distance sea voyages.
The varying degrees of autonomy within the shipping industry holds great promise in reducing emissions, increasing efficiency, and enhancing safety. By relieving humans of the constant need to monitor and perform monotonous tasks. These advancements contribute to a greener, more streamlined, and safer maritime landscape.