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Technology-Friend or Foe to Seafarers -Autonomous Ships!

Updated: May 15, 2020


Dear All,

We are talking about technology and relation to seafarers, which I feel will not complete without a discussion on Autonomous ships which seem to be in thing with all the automation, Artificial intelligence and sensors all over the ships we have been talking in our previous posts

As we are discussing all topics in relation to seafarers, self-thought will divide the post into 5 questions and try to find answers to each of the questions. These five questions are nothing but Why, What, How, Where and the last When


1) Why are we even talking about Autonomous vessels? Why does every one seem to be in such urgency to remove seafarers from the ships and run the vessel using computers? There are many reasons given by the industry experts for the sudden urgency in Autonomous vessels

a. To reduce accidents which are Expensive-Various analysis on the cause of accidents blames seafarers or rather Human Error from almost 70% to 96 % of the cases. This is a huge number. With Autonomous vessel, the accidents due to human errors will reduce to zero % as there will be no seafarers but what about the machine errors? We do not have any statistics on the same. We do have some minimal statistics on Machine errors in Autonomous cars, however Zilch on Autonomous ships, which time will tell.


b. Reduce the size the vessel-With no seafarers on board, there will be no requirements of accommodation, fridge room, meet room, bridge, lifeboats, Life rafts, Life jackets, SCBAs, portable fire extinguishers (as all will be fixed) etc. etc. So all these spaces can be saved apart from this fresh water tanks, fuel tanks as mostly the vessels would be battery operated or some ships might also have Liquid Hydrogen where there may storage tanks for those. Excellent but but what about the Computers which would be handling all the operation on behalf of the seafarers, may be one small control room would be sufficient to handle those.

Also as mentioned that the vessel will be mostly battery operated, the overall weight of the Main engine and other machinery will considerable reduce.

As so much space is saved, Cargo carrying capacity would increase for the same size of the ship.


c. Crew cost-No crew on board, no salaries, no crew insurance, no overtime payment, no bonuses! Cost saving all over? Sorry, but what about employees sitting in control rooms ashore, the infrastructure for them etc. May be the team sitting in the control ashore may be able to handle some 6 to 10 ships. Hence there seems to be some cost saving there.


d. Logistics cost-No crew so no crew changes and associated logistics costs, along with no provision supply with its additional costs.


e. Recruiting Agencies-Finding correct crew can be challenging sometimes and hence all these complications will also be reduced and cost involved in recruiting and training seafarers to go on the ship.


The above few points indicate that there could indeed be substantial cost saving by removing seafarers. However, the points and the cost saving or notional as we are not aware of the costs and maintenance of the Artificial Intelligence systems which would be replacing seafarers. The actual cost saving and the percentage reduction of accidents is to be seen and time only can give answers to such questions.


2) Now coming to the What of the Autonomous Vessels-We will discuss what will be the changes with Autonomous ships.


a. Design of the vessels will change


b. The fuel used have to change (Batteries, hydrogen etc.)


c. The type of propulsion machinery, suited to the fuel, to reduce the number of moving parts to reduce the maintenance required


d. The type of cargo equipments (Like containers etc.) for E.g. if a reefer container fuse is blown, how will it managed in an Autonomous vessel?


e. The port facilities would require changes to accommodate the autonomous vessels as the berthing and unberthing will not be the conventional methods like ropes and wires but a simpler but sophisticated method like may be shore magnets or locking arms etc. Which are my imaginations.


f. Rules and regulations will have to go through a major revisions-all IMO conventions will have to modified to include and cater to Autonomous vessels


3) Next is the How of the Autonomous Vessels-How it is planned change the vessel from present conventional ships to the Autonomous Vessels-How will the transition take place? Actually as per IMO the Autonomous vessels have four degrees of Automation as mentioned below


a. Degree 1-Ships with automated processes and decision support


b. Degree 2-Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board


c. Degree 3-Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board


d. Degree 4-Fully autonomous ship


Hence the movement from conventional ships to the Autonomous ships will and should take the conservative path to the fully Autonomous vessels.

Also the autonomous vessels will be tried on smaller vessels like tugs, river survey vessels in very restricted or a fixed route before slowly expanding to open oceans


4) Where is the next question we need to discuss-The experiments and developments are happening all over the world however there are two area Norway and Japan, where small size vessels are being already built.


We could say the world leading experiments happening with a new company called Massterly which is a collective effort of Wilhelmsen and kongsberg (which earlier took over Rolls Royce)

Yara Birkeland will be the 1st Autonomous vessel with capacity of 120 TEUs plying in coast of Norway.


5) Coming to our 5th and last question of WHEN? The present stage of the Autonomous vessels are still in the conceptual stage and the prediction is that even though the vessels of the 1st and 2nd degrees may be developed and deployed in couple of years as discussed above, the fully Autonomous ships are still decades away. We might be looking at Fully Autonomous ships of 4th degree around middle of the century i.e. around 2050.Hence the present generation of the seafarers my not see these ships in their professional career time.



Let’s now discuss the challenges which the industry should overcome to make the 4th Degree Autonomous ships viable


1) Navigation:


a. South China Sea and other places of high fishing vessel density, the vessel sensor systems should be able to cope with sailing in very close proximity of fishing vessels (who do not give two hoots on keeping clear from the bigger vessels)


b. Search and Rescue at Sea-There are cases of small, one-person sail boats which sometimes are in distress. Will the Artificial Intelligence powered vessel will be able to effect a rescue?


2) Cargo related:


a. Hold cleaning on Bulk carriers-cleaning can’t be done at sea as there will be no crew or we might send a crew for 1 voyage for tank cleaning or hold cleaning


b. Cargo condition during passage-special cargo need special precautions for fire, water ingress, liquification-Will the sensors be so powerful to detect these before the challenges become big and may destroy the ship


3) Maintenance related:


a. What happens to pipe leakages? Self-welding technologies?


b. What happens filters getting choked at sea and requires cleaning-may be maintenance robots also—very very high tech sensors and technology required.


4) Security related: last but not the least


a. How can we deal with Stowaways-will there be no stowaways then, as he will be the only person on board?


b. What happens when pirates board the vessel?


c. More dangerous is the cyber security, what happens hackers take control of the vessel?


In summarizing, Technology is very good when used properly with complete training and guidance. If training or the big data analysis is not used, it could end up us a big burden on the whole maritime industry

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