Ghost Ships IRL: How Autonomous Cargo Boats Could Disrupt The Global Shipping Industry

Unmanned marine vehicles will use sensors & AI to crisscross the world’s oceans sans crew – potentially lowering costs & improving safety for the $334B shipping sector

Just as driverless cars and trucks are bringing huge changes to the auto industry, and drones are disrupting everything from emergency response to conservation, autonomous ships may be the next major transportation innovation.

A number of startups and governments are piloting “unmanned marine vehicles” or crewless cargo boats, with the potential to disrupt the $334B shipping industry.

Rolls-Royce already demonstrated the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel earlier this year, and the US military is testing an experimental, autonomous warship called the Sea Hunter.

Fully autonomous ships aren’t yet allowed in international waters. But with more and more companies (and governments) developing driverless vessels, the UN is considering policy changes that would allow unmanned boats to crisscross oceans, signaling a major sea-change to the global rules governing transport.

That means “crewless cruising” by cargo vessels could take over the shipping industry sooner than you think. Already, there is a “ghost ship” that is expected to be ferrying cargo for commercial use as soon as 2020.

Rendering of an autodocking system, above, for a self-driving ship. CREDIT: Rolls-Royce
The benefits of crewless cargo ships could be significant.

A boat with no crew has no need for sleeping quarters, kitchens, or bathrooms, and can devote more of that space to products for transport; crewless shipping boats also don’t incur the costs associated with keeping people at sea for long stretches.

Autonomous ships will not only enhance global shipping capacity (lowering transport costs and fuel consumption in the process), they can also potentially lead to safer seas: Human error accounts for over 60% of shipping accidents, according to EU data.

Using vast networks of connected data sensors (and many of the same technological systems found in driverless cars and aerial drones), autonomous boats will share data and communicate amongst one another to navigate the high seas unmanned.

These crewless vessels will either be operated remotely, like drones (via human control and technical monitoring on land) or self-drive autonomously, like driverless cars (via programmed mapping and artificial intelligence, without any human intervention).

Boats of both kind are right around the corner.

“This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist… We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”

Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce’s VP of Marine Innovation, made the above comments when the company announced its “Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative” (AAWA) last year.

Rolls-Royce’s autonomous-vessel operation is among the most advanced in the space. Rolls-Royce has worked extensively in the shipping sector for decades, but launched the AAWA project as part of a broad vision to make better use of “ship intelligence” – aka the data from ships’ vast networks of systems and sensors.

As part of that vision, Rolls-Royce intends to use a land-based control center (staffed with a small crew of 7 to 14 people) to monitor and control a fleet of remote-controlled and autonomous seafaring vessels around the world. It is also working with Google to develop more robust “intelligent awareness systems” for both existing vessels and the autonomous ships of the future.

The company has already taken its efforts well beyond the virtual realm

Rolls-Royce did a ghost-ship demo in June 2017 in which an 28-meter vessel berthed itself, undocked, turned 360°, and piloted itself to back to the starting point before docking again — all via remote control, on land.

As part of its AAWA project, the British automaker has also studied the safety, cybersecurity, and liability issues facing autonomous ships.

While much activity is happening on the development side, autonomous cargo ships still won’t have a major impact on the shipping industry until they can cross international waters, since the maritime shipping industry is largely focused on transporting goods between distant countries. Given this constraint, the UN is beginning to have discussions on the topic:

The 132-foot Sea Hunter is powered by diesel engines and is designed to operate autonomously, for months at a time, without a crew or any human control. Watch the demonstrations of the Sea Hunter below.

Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Advocates for autonomous cargo boats tout a number of potential benefits to these vessels.

Safety: Insurance data shows that people cause the majority of ship accidents and resulting damages; in 2016, at least 75% of insured marine losses arose from human error, according to the most recent AGCS Global Claims Review.

Costs: Paying a crew can account for almost half of a cargo ship’s expenses. And with no requirement for manned spaces and accommodation, driverless vessels are expected to be cheaper to build with lower operating costs.

Energy: Most vessels in development are either highly energy-efficient or entirely electric, which is good for the environment and potentially cheaper to operate. (The YARA Birkeland, for example, touts zero emissions.)

Capacity: Physical spaces formerly reserved for people are utilized to increase cargo load, potentially making import-export processes faster and more efficient around the world.

Piracy Risk: Uncrewed ships can be built so that they are difficult for pirates to board. Even if pirates got aboard, access to controls could be disabled remotely, and authorities could be rapidly notified (via data) to intervene. And with no crew to hold hostage for ransom, the incentive for piracy is fairly low anyway.

Data Use: Enhanced ship intelligence cultivated by data-smart, sensor-equipped cargo ships will be used to map more efficient shipping routes, inform fuel-use modeling, and better understand geological activities and climate fluctuations.

Kongsberg’s YARA Birkeland, above, will be the world’s first fully electric & autonomous container ship by 2020. CREDIT: Kongsberg

Will data be the real advantage?

A recent study by researchers at the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services weighed the overall potential for driverless ships to reap returns: In an exploratory cost-comparison between an autonomous vessel and a conventional bulk carrier, researchers found that there are indeed savings to be made – mainly around crew pay, accommodations, and utilities.

But new costs factor into play, too. To deploy driverless cargo ships, companies will need to equip their fleets with advanced sensors and control systems. Recruiting a land-based workforce (and expensive new operations centers) will also absorb resources and offset savings.

But for any of the world’s massive global freight or logistics companies (such as UPS, DHL, or Amazon) a 3.4% reduction in costs represents millions in recouped revenue, which may be incentive enough to embrace the technology.

Just as driverless cars will disrupt industries well beyond auto – ranging from parking garages to public transit – driverless ships will likewise upend dozens of shipping-related sectors and standards, leading to new work at ports and manufacturing centers.

And the tech may create jobs in other areas, too, thanks to data. With Rolls-Royce and Google, for example, already collaborating to use marine data sets in various AI and machine learning models, there’s no limit to how marine intelligence could reshape the transportation sector at large.

“Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry,” says Mikael Makinen, President of Rolls-Royce Marine. “As disruptive as the smartphone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations.”



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