Why you should care
From Norway to China, autonomous ships are emerging as the future of commercial maritime trade.
Although the two offshore vessels were hundreds of miles apart on Dec. 3, 2018 — one off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland, the other on a voyage between Parainen and Nauvo in Finland — they were bound by technological innovation: Both set sail without a crew and were operated remotely.
In fact, the offshore vessel in Aberdeen was controlled from 5,000 miles away, in San Diego. The two ships were showcasing what country after maritime country is increasingly turning to as the future of commercial shipping: autonomous and remote-controlled ships.
In September 2017, two Norwegian firms, Yara and Kongsberg, announced plans to build the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, the Yara Birkeland, by 2020. In 2018, Kongsberg teamed with another Norwegian firm, Wilhelmsen, to form the world’s first shipping company dedicated to autonomous vessels. In November, the ferry Folgefonn, also from Norway, underwent successful auto-docking, undocking and dock-to-dock tests, all controlled remotely, demonstrating how autonomously ships of the future might function, even when in port.
The magnitude of cost-saving potential is huge.
Oskar Levander, senior vice president, Rolls-Royce
In the Netherlands, a consortium of 20 maritime businesses launched a project in December to study and demonstrate the potential of autonomous maritime transport. In Germany, the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services is designing a remote-control tugboat that could help large, manned ships dock and undock. And the European Commission is co-sponsoring a collaborative project called MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks) that’s developing technology for unmanned vessels.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration and Wuhan University of Technology are developing uncrewed multifunctional maritime ships, the country’s latest step in developing advanced transport solutions. And British engineering giant Rolls-Royce plans to build a remotely operated local vessel by 2020. By 2035, the company aims to launch autonomous, unmanned oceangoing ships.
These plans are altering the face of shipping, shaped for centuries by sailors and explorers whose actions formed the bedrock of trade and transport. But increasingly, say observers and industry insiders, autonomous, unmanned commercial ships represent an unavoidable future — one where human errors can be avoided, financial margins improved because of fewer wages and lower fuel costs for lighter vessels, and the impact on the environment reduced.
“The magnitude of cost-saving potential [when it comes to autonomous and unmanned vessels] is huge,” says Oskar Levander, senior vice president of concepts and innovation at Rolls-Royce Marine.
Lives can also be saved with unmanned ships. According to insurance company Allianz, 2,712 people died because of maritime accidents in 2017. In all, 94 ships were lost that year to accidents; 1,129 have been lost over the past decade. “One of the main advantages of unmanned vehicles is that it allows for operations that do not put human lives at risk,” says Richard V. Lawson, CEO of the Washington-based International Ocean Science and Technology Industry Association.
Most maritime accidents are caused at least partly by human error or fatigue, studies have shown, making autonomous ships a smart way to “reduce the risk of human tragedy,” says Pol Deketelaere, a lawyer in Bruges, Belgium, who has researched the legal implications of unmanned shipping. While the shipping industry will likely still need humans to work on docks — though China is developing ports that rely almost entirely on automated machines — autonomous, unmanned ships would dramatically cut the wage bill for companies. Because unmanned ships will be lighter, they’ll require less fuel and will leave a smaller carbon footprint, Rolls-Royce’s Levander says.
As in so many other industries, concerns about automation eating up jobs also exist in shipping. The industry employs an estimated 1.2 million people on ships and on land. And the impact on employment is far from the only concern shadowing the industry’s shift.
First, there are unanswered legal questions — companies don’t yet know how international laws will apply to vessels that have no humans on them. Who is liable if an accident takes place?
These questions are also worrying the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Seafarers, the maritime wing of the organization. “The lack of physical presence onboard may leave the authorities with nothing other than a brass-plate company somewhere not legally reachable, and an accident that may cause millions of dollars in damages to the local community, ports’ infrastructure and the environment,” says Fabrizio Barcellona of ITF Seafarers, Fisheries and Inland Navigation.
There’s also no guarantee that the controlling systems of these vessels are hack-proof, say experts. And what if a ship needs to suddenly change its route or respond to an unforeseen event, whether natural or man-made? Imagine a fleet of autonomous ships traveling without control in the event of something going wrong.
Many in the industry, though, point out that most of these concerns are being addressed. On the regulatory side, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) — the United Nations body that regulates international shipping — is conducting a scoping exercise on autonomous surface ships. “As the regulatory body, IMO is concerned with ensuring that benefits offered by emerging technologies can be fully realized but without compromising safety, security or environmental protection,” says Natasha Brown, IMO’s media and communications officer. The regulatory review will be completed by 2020, and tweaks will be made to laws and norms to cater to the emerging wave of autonomous vessels.
Rolls-Royce is designing ships that have situational awareness, using high-resolution visible light and infrared imagery, lidar and radar technologies to map the area around the vessel so that it can avoid collisions, make sharp maneuvers and respond to crises. Satellite connections can be used to message SOS signals to other nearby manned or unmanned ships. And control systems can be designed to automatically shut down if pirates come onboard.
Strong features allowing humans to override the automatic systems will be important for scenarios where things go wrong, says Deketelaere. Still, he’s convinced that autonomous ships are the future. The IMO, which at a recent special session unanimously declared such unmanned, remote-controlled vessels as part of the industry “evolution,” expects such ships to first embark on shorter voyages. That will also keep most jobs in the industry intact in the immediate future.
But the economics of autonomous shipping means it’s only a question of when — not if — vessels on long-haul journeys will also routinely run by remote control, say experts. Smaller container ships and cargo vessels, for instance, can save up to 10 to 22 percent by switching to unmanned operations, says Levander. So is it time to say bye-bye, captain? According to IMO’s “Transport 2040: Automation, Technology and Employment — the Future of Work” report, released on Jan. 15, “despite high levels of automation, qualified human resources with the right skill sets will still be needed in the foreseeable future.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Rolls-Royce as an automobile giant. Rolls-Royce sold its automobile arm to BMW in 1998.