Future tech: from coronavirus to autonomous ships

Changes will be inevitable in maritime technology as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, believes Philip Bacon, director of the consultant Icthus Marine and a senior nautical advisor to Shell Shipping and Trading.

Delivering an online lecture last week (13 May) as part of a series for the Baltic Exchange and the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, he also said that current design concepts for autonomous ships are ‘fantasy’ and that unmanned vessels will not be commercially viable.

Is this what autonomous ships will look like?

One of the technologies that will have to change in the wake of coronavirus is heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), particularly on cruise ships. At present, if a cruise ship were to draw in ambient air in warm regions of the world, it would take a lot of power to cool it to comfortable levels for use in the ship. Instead, air is recirculated, which requires less cooling but risks spreading disease, Mr Bacon said.

He commented that experiments into the spread of the norovirus – which has caused many outbreaks of illness on cruise ships – have shown that it can be carried through HVAC systems and he suggested that the coronavirus could be transmitted the same way. So “we will see changes coming;” for example, it may become necessary to treat the recirculating air by exposing it to UV-C light – the same as is used in ballast water management systems – to disinfect it, he speculated.

He also predicted that the whole nature of cruising will have to change. “The idea of jumping on a plane and all flying together from 28 different countries and meeting in one hub port and then all cramming onto a ship with 28 nationalities in the same ship” will “suddenly seem scary to everybody,” he said. “Those patterns are probably going to be changed – even pushed – by regulation.”

Cargo ships have been familiar with health-related requirements for many years, he said, because of the requirement to obtain ‘free pratique’ – which is an assurance that it is free from contagious disease – on arrival at a port. In future, however, it will become common that, even with that assurance, seafarers will not be allowed to go ashore. Arrangements might be made to take them to and from port-based seafarer centres, but “getting out on a street, seeing people and eating at McDonald’s [will be] a big deal.”

At the ship management level, the industry “will move in directions that we didn’t expect.” Integrating technology into some activities “will become a necessity,” he said, and gave his own experience over the past few weeks as an example. He had been due to travel to attend several ships’ first operations but his input was instead achieved remotely by involving the ships’ crews and the contract’s various counterparties.

In addition, capital projects will be put on hold. Anyone who was planning a project that will not now generate a return until more than a year away will sit on their cash, he said; “that is the responsible position of any business decision maker.”

Looking beyond the current pandemic, Mr Bacon compared what he said were the ‘facts’ of autonomous ships with the ‘fantasy’ of futuristic ship designs, illustrating it with an image of one concept that features curved topsides and no accommodation. He then revealed “my version of what the autonomous ship is going to look like” by displaying a photograph of a conventional Capesize bulk carrier.

“Anybody in the industry knows that when you get the price of a ship from the shipyard, rolling steel is the big cost,” so the idea that future ships superstructures will be rounded “is just not real,” he said. And they will need accommodation and lifeboats for maintenance crew: with as much as 95% of maintenance carried out while a ship is in service, “who is going to take a ship out of service every time any maintenance needs to be done?” he questioned.

Asked why autonomous ships have been slow to become reality, he cited two possible factors. First, while seafarers have been “relatively cheap … there has been a lack of necessity.” But now, incomes are increasing in the seafarer-supply nations so the question of whether a machine could do it cheaper becomes relevant.

Second, because many port state regulations give a ship’s master a large number of responsibilities, if a ship arrived without a master, that would pose problems. But he recalled that IMO has defined four operational levels for maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) and started work in 2018 on exploring how IMO instruments can address them.

From a technical point of view, much of the technology needed for autonomous ships is already in use in other sectors, he said as he described some of the features on his nine-year-old car. They provide information, decision support and can do some tasks unsupervised so “this is easy; this is already here.” Even the equivalent of IMO’s Level 3 – a remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board – is already operational in military aviation: “it’s called a drone. It’s been around for a long time,” he said.

With that level of technology available, “why is a watchkeeper standing on the bridge of a ship in the middle of the sea as opposed to driving down to an operation centre?” he wondered. These centres could be located in the main seafarer recruitment regions and bridge team members would work their watches, hand over to another team and go home. With seafarer recruitment a constant concern, this way of working may attract better people to the profession, he suggested.

This transition towards autonomy will be phased, he said. “While the humans are there, they will identify what the vulnerabilities are [and] what are the wrong decisions that the machines have made.” But the benefits are clear: “if you’ve got enough information coming in … you don’t need to be wet and feel the smell of the sea … to make decisions.”

● What technologies do you think will, or should, change as a result of our experience during the coronavirus pandemic? Email me now with your thoughts.

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