The Demand for Autonomous Ships

When it comes to the adoption of everything technology can offer the maritime sector, it can sometimes be a case of mind over matter. While there can be technical matters to overcome, it is often more about the attitudes that need to change most if maritime is to see the levels of benefit being enjoyed in other industries.

Shipping has already been disrupted by shifts in trade patterns as well as the impact of the financial crisis, and it will continue to be affected both by internal and external forces in the future.

One such force - and it is a force for good - is communications technology, a major contributor in the battle towards crew efficiency, improved safety standards and a secure working environment.

Maritime crews rely on communications tools every day, and for a sector that is the life and soul of the global economy - 90% of all goods are transported by sea – it is imperative that investment in this area is cost effective. Costs can be reduced significantly if thinking is changed, with real alternatives available for those willing to invest in technology.  

The maritime sector is worth US$350-400 billion and it boasts more than one million employees. That includes people working at sea, shipyard and dock workers, and equipment manufacturers. Initially, one might expect this sector to be among the first to adopt such ground-breaking technology like autonomous ships.

Yet, the majority of trials and tests related to unmanned vehicles are on drones and driverless cars, while progress with autonomous ships is comparatively slow. Automated systems and interaction with onboard sensors, GPS and satellite communication equipment are already available but why is the industry taking so long to buy into this concept of autonomous ships?

Unmanned Airborne Vehicles (UAVs) operate in a 3D environment in which strict regulations must be observed and weather conditions need to be taken into account. Similarly, driverless cars operate in an environment dominated by humans going about their daily lives. Ships, however, operate in a predominantly 2D environment that is sparsely populated in comparison and could benefit the most from this unmanned concept.  However, investments and advancements in technology for maritime appear way down the list of priorities for shipping companies.

Military drones are currently the most developed of the unmanned technological vehicles to date. These are ideal for tackling monotonous, dangerous tasks such as reconnaissance or lethal missions where very little additional frontline support is given. This raises the question of why the transition to using autonomous ships isn’t moving full steam ahead when maritime crews also face both monotonous and dangerous tasks.

It is important to consider the positive social impact that autonomous ships could have on countries like the Philippines, a huge provider of crews to the shipping industry. Maritime crew often spend months at sea and can be away from their families for long periods of time. The impact of work-related stress – monotonous routines, harsh and hazardous working environments, a negligible social life, can take its toll on even the most experienced of crew members resulting in both physical and psychological issues.

Unmanned vehicles not only affect those out at sea but also those who supply services and equipment to support them. There is a cause and a reaction to shipping. We know that the more containers that fit on a ship, for example, the cheaper it is to move them, which helps increase efficiency, creates a faster turnaround time and potentially saves the port, the shipping company as well as local manufacturers, money.

Unmanned ships have to be monitored and need to communicate with a central hub via satellite. This calls into question the various frequencies and bandwidths being used by satellite operators and how this has a knock-on effect on autonomous ships.

Medium frequencies such as C-band provide higher bandwidths (speeds) and are reasonably resilient to rainfall and atmospheric conditions. There are limited new spectrums available to satisfy this type of infrastructure, however, and the potential of interference from other systems such as radars.

Higher frequencies are affected by rainfall either on the ship side or at the satellite ground station. However, the advantage of a higher frequency band is that it allows faster rates to transmit and receive data.

However, frequency bands such as L-band, used by Thuraya, have the advantage of a robust link that can bypass adverse weather. L-band provides lower data rates compared to K-band but offers a more cost-effective solution for asset tracking and fleet management.

Concerns surrounding the implementation of autopilots, anti-collision radars, built-in test and monitoring systems, as well as navigation, could be overcome if these factors are integrated into a reliable and coherent system that allows individual sub-systems to work together with limited human intervention.

Ship owners and managers would also be able to save space and weight by eliminating equipment required to support personnel. This could lead to the reallocation and increase of cargo, driving higher revenues.

Internal and external security threats are also a top line concern. Such threats include the pilfering of cargo and the sale of it on the black market as well the threat of piracy in high risk areas such as the Horn of Africa, Somalia and in the South China Sea. In most cases such threats can be reduced by vessel tracking and video feeds via satellite, transmitted back to HQ. Such tracking and video feeds also provide evidence for prosecution cases and insurance claims. At the most basic level, these vessel tracking and video feeds can act as effective deterrents.

Fortunately, major incidents such as the terrorist attack against the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985 are few and far between, but the notion of terrorist organisations seizing financial assets and growing stronger roots in the piracy trade remains a real threat. Crews being kidnapped and used as human shields, or ransomed along with the cargo, could become a thing of the past if autonomous ships become part of our lives.

The shipping industry needs to take a more radical mindset to grasp the benefits of technology opportunities such as autonomous ships. Traditionally, the maritime sector is very conservative when adopting new technology and while ‘tried and tested’ methods serve as a valuable indicator, what the industry ultimately needs is a fundamental change in how ships are operated.

As with Google cars, Uber, Spotify, and Facebook - today’s shipping industry needs to look at the latest technological advancements in communication and navigation - and what they have to offer. Inevitably, this will be driven by economics and it is important to get the economics right. Those that do this will reap the true cost benefits available by investing into this game-changing technology. 

Keith Murray
Product Manager - Maritime