Autonomous cars are already being tested on the streets and it looks like crewless ships will follow in the water. Rolls-Royce, which is working on autonomous technology in the maritime sector, envisages a remotely-operated local vessel being in operation by 2020 and a remotely-operated autonomous vessel in international waters by 2025. Fully autonomous unmanned ocean-going ships could be around by 2035, it says. In Japan, shipping companies are working with shipbuilders to develop self-piloting cargo ships, which could also be in service by 2025. In the Baltic Sea, the One Sea ecosystem project, founded in 2016, is aiming to enable fully remote-controlled vessels in three years and to achieve autonomous commercial maritime traffic by 2025.
Meanwhile, on a smaller size scale, one of the most ambitious timelines involves an effort by Automated Ships and Kongsberg Maritime to build Hronn, the first unmanned and fully automated offshore supply vessel, and have it on the water in 2018. Clearly, the technology behind such vessels is developing rapidly, including advances that will allow ships to be controlled remotely or operate autonomously. This could enable ships to monitor their own health and the environment around them, potentially making decisions based on that information.
Indeed, the potential use of automation goes well beyond the vessels themselves, stretching the entire length of the cargo movement chain. “Autonomous technology has the potential to revolutionize the movement of cargo on a scale not seen since containerization was introduced some 50 years ago,” says Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Risk Consultant at AGCS.
There are many potential benefits to be gained from autonomous shipping. Human error often plays a major role in incidents at sea. It is estimated that 75-96 percent of marine accidents can be attributed to human error.
In addition, AGCS analysis of almost 15,000 marine liability insurance claims shows that human error is behind 75 percent of the value of all claims analyzed, equivalent to $1.6 billion. Given the role of human error in maritime incidents it is assumed unmanned vessels could be safer. At the same time the risks inherent in having a crew, such as injury or loss of life, will be significantly reduced or even eliminated.
Then there is the potential to improve both efficiencies and productivity by saving on crew and fuel costs. The current shipping market, affected by a global downturn, faces various challenges. Crew costs can vary from around 10-30 percent of ship-owners operating expenditure (OPEX), depending on the type of vessel. An unmanned ship could free up more space for cargo in place of accommodation and crew support systems.
The introduction of designated automated shipping lanes could make logistics easier, increasing the reliability of cargo transport. It has even been suggested that automation could result in a decline in piracy incidents as there is no crew to be used as leverage for ransom. However, the piracy threat is ever-evolving and there is already evidence that pirates have been abusing holes in cyber security to target specific cargoes, so the cyber security threat could actually increase in future.