24/06/2019 – Mobility Series / Shipping / Maritime / Autonomous Ships



Unmanned autonomous vessels could significantly boost efficiency and safety in shipping. Even if the Captain remains at the bridge, technological advancement in this area is set to benefit all segments of the industry.


Millions of years of glacial activity have blessed Norway with a dramatic, crinkle-cut coastline of intricately carved fjords – around 1,190 long, narrow, deep inlets of the sea between high cliffs. In striving to more efficiently traverse such vast sea passages, the Scandinavian country has long found itself at the forefront of maritime innovation. Recently, much of that focus has been on advancing the concept of the autonomous vessel.


Government agencies and industry bodies established the Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships (NFAS) in 2016 and since then have turned Trondheim Fjord – Norway’s third longest at 130km – into the world’s first designated test area for autonomous vessel trials. Ørnulf Jan Rødseth, GM of the NFAS, sees significant potential for completely unmanned vessels along Norway’s coast – not least in providing on-demand ferries on short routes to and from the country’s numerous lightly populated islands. “It’s much cheaper than building a bridge,” he says. 


On the open seas too, there is growing interest in the idea of ships setting sail without a crew. 


Safer, cheaper shipping


Two major potential advantages are driving interest in autonomous vessels – the first being safety. Most accidents at sea come as a result of human error, and thus removing the human element should make shipping safer. In the event of a pirate attack, this also removes a very effective bargaining chip (i.e., hostages). Beyond that, unmanned ships could be used in hazardous operations like fire fighting, or as stand-by rescue vessels for offshore structures.


The second good reason for unmanned ships is the rising costs and dwindling availability of experienced crews – especially those willing to embark on journeys that require months at sea. At present, the trend for slower steaming on non-urgent shipped goods could provide significant savings (a 30-per-cent reduction in speed can practically halve a vessel’s fuel bill, for example), yet such gains are often snubbed out by the extra wages and other expenditure associated with contracting crew for a longer duration. Remove the human component, and an autonomous ship could travel at the optimal economic speed. With no crew, there would be no need for facilities such as the vessel’s superstructure either. DNV GL says that for its autonomous vessel project, ReVolt – calculated to operate at a speed of 6 knots with a range of 100 nautical miles and a cargo capacity of 100TEU – such cost savings could add up to US$34m over an estimated 30-year lifetime when compared to a diesel-run ship.


Unmanned and unplanned


Autonomous shipping could therefore open up great benefits for the maritime sector, yet new competencies must be built before such vessels become a commercially viable proposition. Key research must be done to improve sensor technology, the acquisition of high-res ranging data and instrumentation accuracy. Software plays a very important role in this scenario by enabling situational awareness – a prerequisite for automated decision management. “While existing know-how from the aerospace and automobile industries can be leveraged, specific expertise in ship autonomy has yet to be built up,” observes Pierre C. Sames, Director of Group Technology & Research at DNV GL. Indeed, one fear is that nefarious types might hack into the controls of an autonomous ship to take command, and thus developing encrypted data communication is seen as a high priority before unmanned vessels become a reality.


Another concern is the operational availability of on-board machinery. No immediate repairs are possible on an unmanned craft, making the reliability of all mechanical and electronic components crucial.


Last but certainly not least is the barrier of hitherto unknown regulation: no legal framework yet exists that governs the use of unmanned ships. DNV GL has said it is currently developing a set of rules, but to avoid potential conflicts with international law, autonomous ships will not be able to operate in international waters until the IMO develops appropriate regulations, which will take time.


New options for operation


Segments of the maritime industry that could see the first autonomous vessels in operation include ferries – perhaps replacing those on Norway’s vast fjords – or offshore supply vessels operating in coastal areas, or maybe smaller cargo vessels operating in short-sea-shipping.


Even short of achieving fully autonomous control, further advancement in maritime automation is undoubtedly set to benefit all industry segments going forward. In the future, some ship traffic could be controlled remotely from land-based virtual bridges – with one shipmaster overseeing several vessels simultaneously. “The most likely scenario is that the technology which enables autonomous ship operations will simply be an additional option for operation – meaning they could be used for specific purposes without fully replacing traditional, manned operations,” Mr Sames suggests. “For example, autonomous navigation and control systems could support the crew in steering a vessel, increasing safety and optimising operational efficiency.”


Certainly, given the recent advances in driverless car technology, trying something similar with ships should not appear so far-fetched. After all, as Mr Sames points out in closing, “Water has at least one great advantage: there is less traffic than on roads and reaction times are usually longer.”

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Future Minerals Forum 2023

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia