Far from being something out of science fiction، ships with no people on board could soon become a reality says John Ioannou، Rolls-Royce Marine adviser, Cyprus Mail reported.
Imagine shipping is on the cusp of a revolution as great as moving from sail power to steam. Imagine، in a few short years، unmanned ships moving silently across the world’s oceans like drones، delivering cargo faster، safer and cheaper. Imagine these sleek، hi-tech craft being controlled from futuristic onshore operations centres by teams of captains and engineers who use satellite technology to remotely pilot whole fleets across oceans and into ports. Dedicated emergency and maintenance crews are on standby، ready for dispatch in case of any problems، and in port expert shore personnel swarm over the vessel like a pit-stop crew، swiftly executing cargo operations previously handled by ships’ officers.
Sound like a science fiction movie? Maybe not. The world’s first autonomous cargo vessel Yara Birkeland will launch in 2018، and while crew will man the ship for a trial period، it is expected to be fully automated by 2020. The ship will use satellite systems، sensors and cameras to navigate itself along Norway’s coastline and in and out of port، all the while feeding real-time data back to shore which analysts will mine for insights on improving safety and efficiency.
The Yara Birkeland may be pioneering، but the concept of autonomous vessels is nothing new; they have been mulled for over 40 years. The quantum leap came in 2007 when the ground-breaking Waterborne paper triggered EU-funded efforts that engaged universities، tech companies and marine industry experts in defining the vision. Rolls Royce is one such stakeholder investing heavily in automated ship technology and is gambling on it to revitalise its flagging marine division. Mikael Mikanen، president of Rolls-Royce Marine thinks it’s a one-way bet. “Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smart phone، the smart ship will revolutionise the landscape of ship design and operations”.
But while the technology has moved fast، regulatory frameworks have lagged and codes of practice for unmanned vessels must still be drafted by the IMO، the UN’s agency for maritime matters. Nonetheless، efforts will intensify as the commercial incentives for unmanned fleets are huge – seafarer salaries represent 50 per cent of ship operating expenses yet human error leads to 80 per cent of all vessel insurance claims. Autonomous ships will be of a simpler structural design and cheaper to build، and the removal of the accommodation superstructure and navigation deck will allow for lighter، more fuel-efficient vessels that can carry more cargo. Moreover، by digitally stacking ships together in smart systems، owners will be able to mine data more effectively، thus optimising operations and maximising profits.