The end of days for crewed ships? This is the progress on autonomous ships so far

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

15 September 2017


Unmanned ships may be a step too far for commercial operators as things stand but a pioneering few are taking an interest and technology organisations and regulators are also taking note. With tens of thousands of conventional ships in operation and unmanned ships of any size existing or afloat able to be counted on the fingers of one hand, the demise of the seafarer seems a long way off. However, all journeys begin with a single step and even though the commercial case for unmanned ships may eventually never be made, those first steps have already been made. As ShipInsight covered in a previous article, the unmanned ship is the ultimate goal but there are various stages of autonomy along the way to reaching that goal. The first stages of autonomy occurred long ago now as almost all ships can be operated with unmanned engine and machinery rooms and put on autopilot to follow a pre-determined course.

What's the progress so far?

In our Spring 2017 issue we covered the Hrönn project involving Kongsberg, and UK-based Automated Ships Ltd. (ASL). At the time we said that Automated Ships was in discussion with several end-users that would act as early-adopters and to establish a base-rate for operations and secure contracts for Hrönn offshore, in the near future. In July, it was revealed that the offshore services company, Bourbon had entered into a MoU with the project partners to support the building of the world’s first autonomous, fully-automated and cost-efficient prototype vessel for offshore operations. In the second phase of the project, Bourbon and ASL will join forces to search for the subsidies to finance the effective construction of the prototype. Hrönn is described as a light-duty, offshore utility ship servicing the offshore energy, hydrographic & scientific and offshore fish-farming industries. It can also be utilised as a ROV and AUV support ship and standby vessel, able to provide firefighting support to an offshore platform working in cooperation with manned vessels. ASL has progressed the original catamaran design of Hrönn since the project launch opting for a monohulled vessel of steel construction, to provide more payload capacity and greater flexibility in the diverse range of operations. Bourbon’s entry to the Hrönn project, builds on an agreement with Kongsberg to collaborate in developing digital solutions for next generation connected and autonomous vessels.

Autonomous ship testing areas

ASL is not a newcomer to automated craft and although there is a large step in scale involved in the new project, it brings experience with operating craft up to 12m in length for offshore survey and data collection tasks. The company is also involved in a new initiative, also announced in July, that will see a UK testing area for autonomous and unmanned craft on the South Coast. Based around Portsmouth, Southampton and the South East of the Isle of Wight, ASL along with BAE Systems, the University of Southampton and several other organisations will work together to provide the service’s infrastructure, with more organisations set to join later this year. [caption id="attachment_15089" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Artist's impression of future autonomous vessels on the Trondheimsfjord. Image: Kongsberg.[/caption] This initiative means there are now at least three established test areas in Europe with the other two being the one in Norway mentioned above and another in Finland. The Finnish test area was officially inaugurated in August allowing it to claim to be the first globally available autonomous maritime test area. The Jaakonmeri test area on the west coast of Finland is managed and controlled by DIMECC (Digital, Internet, Materials & Engineering Co-Creation) a Finnish specialist umbrella agency for technological advancement. Part of DIMECC is the One Sea - Autonomous Maritime Ecosystem aimed at creating the world’s first autonomous marine transport system. There are almost 80 companies in the ecosystem through Finnish Marine Industries Association. The most well known in shipping being; ABB, Cargotec, Ericsson, Meyer Turku, Rolls-Royce, Tieto, and Wärtsilä. Half of the ecosystem’s funding comes from TEKES – the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation. DIMECC is already in discussions about the first tests which are expected to be started in the spring of 2018. All the test areas mentioned will be the proving grounds for some of the technology that will be necessary for autonomous ships to gain acceptance both from safety and operational viewpoints. Most of that technology will be tested on small scale vessels and not on commercial platforms, not least because of the expense involved.

What types of ships?

There are a number of projects aimed at upscaling tests to full size ships and in June this year, Rolls-Royce which has been one of the pioneers of autonomous ship claimed a world first when it demonstrated remote controlled manoeuvring of a harbour tug the 28m long Svitzer Hermod owned by Danish tug operator Svitzer. The tug did have a crew on board for safety reasons but they were not involved in controlling the vessel during the tests. Instead the tug’s master was stationed at the vessel’s remote base at Svitzer headquarters in Copenhagen and berthed the vessel alongside the quay, undocked, turned 360°, and piloted it to the Svitzer HQ, before docking again. Tugs have been singled out as one vessel type that could be at the front of the autonomy revolution because they operate within a confined area and there are less of the safety issues that arise with ferries another vessel type that has been considered. There are of course safety issues that arise with tugs if a manoeuvre goes wrong but on any passenger vessel, a crew would be considered essential to aid passengers in emergencies. Rolls-Royce and Svitzer have signed an agreement to continue their cooperation to test remote and autonomous operations for vessels. The primary systems involved will be autonomous navigation, situational awareness, remote control centre and communication. [caption id="attachment_15084" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Autonomous ships Rolls-Royce’s Remote Operating Centre at Svitzer headquarters. Image credit: Rolls-Royce[/caption] Mikael Makinen, Rolls-Royce, President – Marine who witnessed the event said; “It was an honour to be present at what I believe was a world first and a genuinely historic moment for the maritime industry. We’ve been saying for a couple of years that a remotely operated commercial vessel would be in operation by the end of the decade. Thanks to a unique combination of Svitzer’s operational knowledge and our technological expertise, we have made that vision a reality much sooner than we anticipated.” Kristian Brauner, Chief Technology Officer, Svitzer said; “Disruption through innovation is happening in almost every industry and sector and technology will also be transforming the maritime industry. As the largest global towage company, Svitzer is actively engaging in projects that allow us to explore innovative ways to improve the safety and efficiency of towage operations to benefit our customers and our crews. With its direct impact on our customer performance, operational cost and environmental footprint vessel efficiency remains a main driver now and going forward. We are proud to be partnering with Rolls-Royce in this high-level research and development of systems for remote operation.” The Svitzer Hermod was built in Turkey at the Sanmar yard in 2016. It is equipped with a Rolls-Royce Dynamic Positioning System, which is the key link to the remote-controlled system. The vessel is also equipped with a pair of MTU 16V4000 M63 diesel engines from Rolls-Royce, each rated 2000 kW at 1800 rpm. It also features a range of sensors which combine different data inputs using advanced software to give the master an enhanced understanding of the vessel and its surroundings. The data is transmitted reliably and securely to a Remote Operating Centre (ROC) from where the Captain controls the vessel. [caption id="attachment_15086" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Rolls-Royce’s Remote Operating Centre (ROC). Image credit: Rolls-Royce[/caption] The ROC was designed to redefine the way in which vessels are controlled. Instead of copying an existing wheelhouse design, the ROC used input from experienced masters to place the different system components in the optimum location to give the master confidence and control. The aim was to create a future proof standard for the control of vessels remotely. Lloyd’s Register, one of the first of the class societies to begin setting out standards for autonomy was also involved in the test. LR’s Marine & Offshore Director, Nick Brown, said “With autonomous ships likely to enter service soon, we have already set out the ‘how’ of marine autonomous operations in our ShipRight procedure guidance as it is vital these technologies are implemented in a safe way and there is a route for compliance. Lack of prescriptive rules was no barrier for “de-risking” the project and we provided assurance against LR’s Cyber-Enabled Ships ShipRight Procedure, whilst considering the safety implications associated with the first closed demonstration”. Remote controlled it may have been but the Svitzer Hermod is not the fully autonomous ship that most people think of. For them a ship has to carry cargo or perform more complex tasks such as offshore work. Some would even question the merits of remote controlled tugs arguing that connecting or releasing towing gear is something that requires a human presence.

Container feeder ship

In the world of autonomous ship development, there is a great desire to notch up firsts. In May this year, Kongsberg and a Norwegian fertiliser producer revealed plans to build what they claimed was the world’s first zero emission, autonomous container feeder ship. Designed by Marin Teknikk, Yara Birkeland will be recognised as a true ship being 70m in length, 15m in beam and a 100-150teu capacity. At the time the project was announced, it was said that the final design would be selected by the end of Q2 this year and the building yard by end of Q3. [caption id="attachment_15082" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Designed by Marin Teknikk, Yara Birkeland will be recognised as a true ship.[/caption] The basic details of the ship were made public in June but no announcement has yet been made about the building yard. The 2,500 – 4,500dwt vessel is planned to have a maximum speed of 10kt and a service speed of 6kt. It will be used for carrying Yara’s products between Herøya, Brevik and Larvik in Southern Norway always within 12 nautical miles from the coast. To be emission free, the ship will be battery powered with a capacity of 4MWh and feature an electric propulsion system comprising a pair of azimuthing pods and a pair of tunnel thrusters. The vessel will be equipped with cameras, infra-red cameras and lidar in addition to normal radar and AIS. Loading and unloading will be done automatically using electric cranes and equipment. The ship will also be equipped with an automatic mooring system.

Zero crew? Think again.

Since one of the touted advantages of autonomous ships is the fact that there will be no crew to account for, it may come as a surprise that to ensure safety, three centres with different operational profile are planned to handle all aspects of operation. These centres will handle emergency and exception handling, condition monitoring, operational monitoring, decision support, surveillance of the ship and its surroundings and all other aspects of safety. For this vessel, the operation centres will be located at Yara at Porsgrunn, Kongsberg Maritime and the Kystverket VTS centre at Brevik. The vessel is planned to be delivered in late 2018. Initially it will have a bridge and crew accommodation housed in containers and will have a small crew while the remote control tests are carried out before becoming fully autonomous in 2020.

Autonomous ships in Asia

Not all of the autonomous ships planned are European as in May this year, Japanese operator MOL announced an R&D project and in June NYK did the same. The Japanese projects will also see prototype vessels begin operations with crews on board before progressing to full autonomy. They are a little behind the European projects and expect to see ships operating autonomously in 2025. This year also saw the launch of an organisation by China aimed at developing autonomous ships. The Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance project brings together several Chinese institutions along with ABS, Rolls-Royce and Wartsila with the aim of advancing autonomous shipping. The concept ship design which is the ultimate goal of the project is planned to be ready in a little over four years from now.

Elon Musk - Autonomous ships

Supporters of autonomous ships when challenged about their viability often use the developments in automobile technology as examples of what is possible. Most of them probably do not realise how appropriate that analogy is. Elon Musk, the man behind the Tesla car also heads the SpaceX organisation which specialises in launching satellites with reusable rockets. Those rockets land on one of two autonomous vessels developed by SpaceX specifically for that purpose once their payload has been released. [caption id="attachment_15083" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]SpaceX - Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You[/caption] SpaceX refers to the two vessels the oddly named Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You as autonomous drone ships. They are converted deck barges which have been fitted with four azimuthing thrusters and are remotely controlled. They have a high degree of positional accuracy, necessary for landing rockets on in various sea conditions. Their dimensions are a length of 91m and a beam of 52m. The first of the ships entered service in 2015 and could with a little stretch of the imagination therefore claim to be the very first autonomous cargo vessel. To read the full article order a copy of the latest journal.