Unmanned or Unnacceptable?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

08 August 2016


Few can have missed the growing number of articles and workshops devoted to the question of autonomous or unmanned ships that have appeared over the last few years. That the technology is available to put prototype vessels to the test is an accepted fact, although incidents and accidents involving autonomy in other applications would suggest that a very large amount of fine tuning is needed before anything that could be considered remotely commercial becomes available or feasible. Images courtesy of Rolls Royce and LR. So far it seems that most of the interest has been generated in Europe with Rolls-Royce leading the pack of technology suppliers with class societies such as LR and DNV GL also playing a major role. From the academia and research side, projects such as the EU-funded MUNIN (MARITIME UNMANNED NAVIGATION THROUGH INTELLIGENCE IN NETWORKS) brought together the likes of Fraunhofer CML, Marintek, Chalmers University, Hochschule Wismar, Aptomar, MarineSoft, Marorka, and University College Cork. MUNIN began in the autumn of 2012 and ran for three years. Its aim was to investigate the ‘autonomous ship’ which was defined by the project as a vessel with ‘next generation modular control systems and communications technology that will enable wireless monitoring and control functions both on and off board. These will include advanced decision support systems to provide a capability to operate ships remotely under semi or fully autonomous control’. Perhaps it was not surprising that the project had EU funding since removal of crew from ships has been an ambition that the EU has long pursued since as far back as 1992 with ATOMOS (Advanced Technology for Optimizing Manpower on Ships). That project’s goal was simply to find ways to reduce manning on EU ships as a means of making them more competitive. At the time the EU felt that European shipping was losing out to Asian and Eastern European competitors who had lower wage costs and could therefore consistently undercut European operators. A more recent autonomous ship project that is due to complete next year is the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) initiative. As with MUNIN it brings together organisations from several spheres which on this occasion include Tampere University of Technology, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland along with three other universities and Rolls-Royce, DNV GL, Inmarsat, DeltaMarin, NAPA, Brighthouse Intelligence, Fin ferries and ESL Shipping. AAWA says that for remote controlled and autonomous ships to become reality a number of critical questions need to be answered. It lists these as:
  • what technology is needed and how can it best be combined to allow a vessel to operate autonomously and miles from shore;
  • how can an autonomous vessel be made at least as safe as existing ships, what new risks with it face and how can they be mitigated;
  • what will be the incentive for ship owners and operators to invest in autonomous vessels and are autonomous ship’s legal and who is liable in the event of an accident?
In a previous phase of the project (it began in 2015) the current state of the maritime industry was examining as was the potential lessons to be learnt from other industries particularly with regard to drones and driverless cars.' The use of drones for military purposes is a subject that most will have heard of and read about but few outside of the military will have much experience in how they behave and whether or not they are considered as robust and reliable technology. With regard to driverless cars this is another subject that achieves much media attention not always for the right reasons. In the space of a few weeks in early summer this year reports of at least three accidents involving Tesla vehicles on autopilot appeared in the media. In one of these cases the ‘driver’ was killed in an accident that would have been highly unlikely to have happened had the driver been in full control and in another it would seem that the incident was due to a man/machine interface issue in that the driver did not speak English and was unaware he was being asked to take over manual control. Now of course people die in accidents involving conventional vehicles perhaps too frequently but if the idea of autonomous machines is to make operations safer then even more attention must be paid to the circumstances surrounding incidents than might be the case with conventional equipment. If the driving force advocating autonomous ships or waterborne craft was purely for military or remote operations purposes, then it could be argued that the present state of technology is theoretically sufficient to produce such vessels in reasonable numbers. However, if the goal is to produce commercial vessels which will operate in an environment where they will be interacting with conventional craft and expected to be commercially viable then it should be considered that the road to a fully autonomous ship is not a smooth one and there will be several hurdles to overcome. For this reason, many of those involved in projects and preparing for commercialisation of the concept are looking much more deeply into both practical and operational matters and trying to produce a framework for regulation in which autonomous ships might operate. While the different projects may do this in different ways most are trying to define different levels autonomy that may exist. The AAWA project lists ten levels of autonomy while Lloyd’s Register in its latest publication entitled Cyber-enabled ships released in July reduces this to seven. Both scales begin with a fully manual ship at the bottom with a fully automatic and remote-controlled ship at the other end of the scale. The seven levels of autonomy envisaged by LR are as detailed below with information about where and by who the decision-making process is carried out:

AL 0). Manual – no autonomous function

All action and decision making is performed manually – i.e. a human controls all actions at the ship level. Note: systems on board may have a level of autonomy, with ‘human in/on the loop’; for example, pms and engine control. Straight readouts, for example, gauge readings, wind direction and sea current, are not considered to be decision support.

AL 1). On-ship decision support

All actions at the ship level are taken by a human operator, but a decision support tool can present options or otherwise influence the actions chosen, for example DP Capability plots and route planning.

AL 2). On and off-ship decision support

All actions at the ship level taken by human operator on board the vessel, but decision support tool can present options or otherwise influence the actions chosen. Data may be provided by systems on or off the ship, for example DP capability plots, OEM configuration recommendations, weather routing.

AL 3). ‘Active’ human in the loop

Decisions and actions at the ship level are performed autonomously with human supervision. High-impact decisions are implemented in a way to give human operators the opportunity to intercede and over-ride them. Data may be provided by systems on or off the ship.

AL 4). Human on the loop – operator/supervisory

Decisions and actions are performed autonomously with human supervision. High impact decisions are implemented in a way to give human operators the opportunity to intercede and over-ride them.

AL 5). Fully autonomous

Unsupervised or rarely supervised operation where decisions are made and actioned by the system, i.e. impact is at the total ship level.

AL 6). Fully autonomous

Unsupervised operation where decisions are made and actioned by the system, i.e. impact is at the total ship level. As can be seen from the above the first three levels are essentially all ready in operation today with the age of the ship being a pointer to the likely level – older vessels at AL0 and newer more sophisticated ships tending to be AL2. That would mean that from a technical point of view the next step will be to proceed to level AL3. In this and the next level, a human presence is still required but that is not to say that the person involved will actually be stationed on the vessel. He or she may in fact be in a shore control centre and operating the ship remotely when necessary. Looking at level AL2, it can be surmised that sensors to provide data and a fairly high level of communication capability are both essentials. Included in the systems and tools providing data would be things such as remote monitoring of machinery, trim optimisation tools and even conceivably assistance with navigation if for example the feeds to a VDR are also relayed to a shore office. To move beyond AL2, most would consider a reliable communications system that carries increasingly large amounts of data for each level essential. Some might question whether this actually exists at the present time. Certainly bandwidth is increasing with VSAT and Ka band service take-up accelerating but so is the number of ships that are making use of high levels of communication. Communication service providers are keen to promote the opportunities that exist with regards to the increased bandwidth, not all of which are related to autonomous or cyber-enabled ship operation. Furthermore the confidence that satellite operators have expressed in the newer systems have still to be proven in operation. While there is as yet no need to doubt the claims, the experiences of the early adopters will be eagerly awaited by there more trepid counterparts. Luis Benito, Head of Innovation Strategy & Research at LR is a great believer in the future of cyber-enabled vessels but he acknowledges that the question of cyber security needs to be answered as a first step. Benito points out that for autonomy to work at the higher levels ships – or the systems on ships – will need to talk with shore based control centres and the conversations need to be secure. He makes the point that until now, cyber security risks were mainly confined to crew actions introducing viruses and malware into shipboard systems but as things move forward the risks will be extended to exterior causes – some accidental some with criminal or malicious intent. What must not be forgotten is that communications can also be disrupted by mundane things such as poor weather, power outages (on shore and at sea) and corrupted software. Benito told ShipInsight that LR has been in discussions with potential operators of cyber-enabled ships and although the details must remain confidential, the intent of the operators is serious and includes a range of vessel types. He is confident that the time when such ships will be operating is not very far in the future. That is a sentiment shared by another proponent of autonomous ships, Oskar Levander Rolls-Royce, Vice President of Innovation – Marine. Speaking in June at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium 2016 in Amsterdam, Levander said: “This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist. The AAWA project is testing sensor arrays in a range of operating and climatic conditions in Finland and has created a simulated autonomous ship control system which allows the behaviour of the complete communication system to be explored. We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.” Levander may be right but it will probably be a ship with a very limited operational area for a whole variety of reasons. First among these will be international acceptance and development of appropriate rules and regulations at the IMO. This is not likely to be a rapid process. For example, it took some 15 years between the first LNG fuelled vessel entering service and the adoption of an IMO set of regulations for using LNG as a marine fuel. That 15 year gap has been a brake on development of LNG-fuelled vessels because each and every ship needed to be approved individually by the flag state before it could legally operate. With autonomous ships, the perceived risks and problems are much greater and it is likely that such a vessel would only be permitted in national waters or perhaps in a service between two adjacent littoral states. If the vessel is truly remote controlled without crew onboard to take control in an emergency then it can be imagined that the service area would be even further restricted because of the safety implications for other marine traffic. There are too, issues of legal liability, insurance and even confidence of the most important stakeholders – the cargo owners – that must all be considered by any potential operator of an autonomous ship. These are issues that have already been flagged up but which can hardly be progressed until the ships themselves are nearer to becoming reality. Even then, maritime disputes are more frequently contractual than statutory and tend to be settled according to precedents. Autonomous ships would be a bigger step change than anything shipping has experienced before and it would take many years to build the volume of precedents that are needed for participants to have confidence in the legal frameworks. One issue that seems to have been overlooked thus far is the financial commitment of ship operators themselves and the ability to recoup outlays. One of the arguments in favour of autonomous ships is that eventually crew accommodation and even the navigation bridge can be taken out of the picture when designing ships allowing for more space for cargo. Removing the crew also solves the problem of the shortage of skilled seafarers although if there are to be shore-based controllers of ships, then there will need to be at least four or five for each vessel to cover 24 hour operation with coverage for illness and other absences. Quite what will happen as regards routine maintenance of equipment and the ships structure has not really been enumerated; perhaps this can be solved by use of repair squads but without accommodation on the ship the work could not be done by riding squads and would have to be carried out in port. There will be cost savings without a crew although perhaps not as much as the proponents have suggested because of the reasons mentioned above concerning shore controllers and maintenance. On the other hand there will be the expense of building and equipping the control centres. Exactly what these might contain is not known, but images of full mission simulator like stations suggest they may well be expensive. This aspect raises another question. What will happen if and when an owner wishes to sell an autonomous ship? Quite clearly any new owner will have to replicate the control centre of the original owner in terms of equipment and manning and that need will pass along the line of owners until the vessel is disposed of. Alternatively, the original owner may just have to accept that disposing of unwanted vessels on the second hand market is not an option and the ship must either be retained or scrapped by the original owner. Shipowning and operation are activities that have evolved over centuries during which time many changes have taken place in so many areas. An unmanned ship will be the most disruptive change that can be imagined and it may be that except for a very few niche uses it is not one that investors in ships will want to pursue. If they do not, it will not be the first time that ideas have been abandoned and it will probably not be the last. On the other hand the concept may gain traction and Levander’s and Benito’s visions may indeed become reality. The decision is in the hands (and band accounts) of current and future shipowners and what they will choose is one of the industry’s great uncertainties.